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I Have a Dream

January 16, 2017

A great speech invokes its predecessors. The structure of Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg paralleled that of the oration delivered by Pericles at a funeral for fallen Athenian soldiers. Lincoln’s measure of America’s age (“four score and seven years”) recalled the measure of a man’s lifespan in the King James version of Psalm 90 (“three score years and ten”). Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” echoed several early American antecedents, including Theodore Parker, an abolitionist minister (“Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people”) who also observed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Martin Luther King began his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington on August 23, 1963, with an invocation of Lincoln’s famous measure of time: Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, King said, “five score years ago.”

King also invoked the Declaration of Independence; like Lincoln, he invoked the country’s founding to call for a recommitment to our founding principles.

Lincoln’s invocation of the country’s founding was to laud the Union for its dedication to the principle that all men are created equal. We were engaged in a “great civil war,” Lincoln said, to determine whether a nation dedicated to that principle “can long endure.” Lincoln asked his audience to resolve “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln made no explicit criticism of the country’s realization of its founding ideal. He did call for a “new birth of freedom,” which might have been an implicit criticism of the country’s first birth of freedom. The founders clearly intended the proposition that “all men are created equal” not to include “all men.” Lincoln’s intentions on that subject remained ambiguous, at best.

By contrast, King practically accused the Founding Fathers of fraud. Referring to the “magnificent words” of the Declaration of Independence that “all men” enjoy “the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” King called the promise of those words a “bad check,” a promissory note on which the country had defaulted.

King let Lincoln off only slightly easier. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation promised freedom for African-American slaves, “the Negro still is not free.”

King’s speech as written was a call to arms. King described “the life of the Negro” as “still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” He said that “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He listed the grievances as responses to his own rhetorical question, “when will you be satisfied?”:

We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.

We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.

We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their adulthood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only.”

We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

King referred without detail to the “sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent.” The sweltering summer of 1963 was this: in Birmingham, Bull Connor’s police officers turned fire hoses and police dogs on civil rights protestors, jailing more than 3,000 African-Americans, some as young as six years old; George Wallace stood in a doorway to block the enrollment of African-American students at the University of Alabama; civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered by a segregationist in Jackson.

King warned white America that time was of the essence: “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.”

The threat in those words was intentional, and surely the force of the threat was amplified by the fact that they were spoken by America’s greatest advocate of non-violent protest. King promised that “1963 is not an end but a beginning” – conjuring even greater unrest to come. American “tranquility” will not be relieved of the “whirlwinds of revolt” until the promise of racial justice is redeemed. He called gradualism a “tranquilizing drug.” He said that taking time for “cooling off” was a “luxury.” King emphasized “the fierce urgency of now.”

King’s written remarks concluded with a call to action. But the call was bland, even anodyne:

Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

Evidently, King sensed that his prepared speech had not risen to the occasion. The great contralto gospel singer Mahalia Jackson must have thought so too. Jackson had performed “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned” before King’s speech, and she remained on the stage. She was active in the civil rights movement, and had heard King speak a number of times. In particular, Jackson had heard King speak about his dream for America.

King first spoke about the American dream in 1960, before the NAACP, contrasting the American dream and the African-American reality. He developed the theme in successive speeches, first giving a recognizable predecessor of the “I Have a Dream” speech in November 1962, at the Booker T. Washington High School, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Most recently, he had delivered a variation of the theme on June 23, 1963, in Detroit.

On the day of the March on Washington, as King was winding up a speech that would probably have been as unremarkable as the other 17 speeches given that day, Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” And King heard her.

The skilled and practiced orator that he was, King improvised memorably on the theme he had developed over the previous three years. The dream was of a just and good America, a country that lived up to its creed: that all men are created equal. It was a dream of aspiration, of ideals and perfection, of unity and understanding, where people will “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Separately, neither the original speech nor the improvised addendum would have gone down in history. The prepared text was a critique of the hypocrisy of the economic and legal treatment of African-Americans by a country that professed belief in equality. King articulated the critique especially well, but the concept itself was hardly original.

On the other hand, standing by itself, the “I Have a Dream” improvisation would have seemed surreal – too optimistic, too idealistic, to be realistic. Without a hard-headed acknowledgement of the reality of 1963, the dream would have been Pollyannaish, sentimental and certainly not a serious plan of action.

But the two halves together are a brilliant and compelling juxtaposition of our reality and our ideals; of how flawed we are but how good we want to be. It is universally inspirational, both stateless and timeless. People from any time and any place, people who know nothing of the hardships of African-Americans in 1963, can understand those hardships as metaphor for the hardships of other people in their own time and their place. Every people holds ideals of freedom and justice. The hypocrisy is perhaps sharper here, where our founding documents were unusually nobly and ably written, and where their ideals have been unusually well inculcated into our cultural sense of ourself, but the difference with other countries, other societies, other peoples, is a matter of degree, not of kind.

The speech is forever known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, although the written version of the speech nowhere used those words. As delivered, the speech stands with the Gettysburg Address as one of the two pillars of our oratorical history, and therefore as a pillar of our culture.

King himself is also a pillar of our culture and our history. Time magazine recognized King as its man of the year for 1963, and King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In 1983, King’s birthday was made a federal holiday, making him one of only three individuals, along with Christopher Columbus and George Washington, to be so honored.


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