Rhetorical devices

Rhetorical devices are used to help Barack Obama create a connection with the audience and encourage the audience to accept his arguments. By using rhetorical devices, the speaker also makes his ideas from Selma Speech more appealing and more memorable.


The speech is filled with allusions to various historical figures and documents and to American values. In this way, the speaker enhances certain ideas and creates a historical link between America’s present and its past.

In the following example, Obama alludes to the Selma march and the reasons why it is worth honoring:

We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching toward justice. (ll. 47-52)

In this quotation, we can find two allusions, both of which are related to African-American history. The “chastening rod” that Obama mentions is an allusion to the lyric “Bitter the chastening rod” from the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, by John Rosamond Johnson, which is often referred to as the “Black American National Anthem”. This lyric is a reminder of the physical violence endured by African-American slaves who were often beaten by their owners as a form of punishment. The purpose of the allusion is to connect the image of the violent clashes between police forces and the marchers at Selma with the historical violence endured by African Americans.

The speaker then mentions how the men and women who marched followed their North Star – this is an allusion to fugitive slaves, who would often make their escape by travelling towards the northern American states (where slavery was illegal), following the North Star. Through this allusion, Obama emphasizes the dangers faced by t...

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