The Dream, Revisited

Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech in 1963.Our political leaders have hyped it, some would say abused or misused it for their own purposes, but bend it, twist it, turn it upside down – it will not be broken.

It remains one of the most powerful, truthful, ground-breaking speeches ever uttered.  Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from Washington DC about the dream of racial equality in this nation, sparked a revolution that could no longer be ignored, and set a new watermark for all political speeches to follow.

The Detroit Free Press has this remembrance:

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took the lectern at the March on Washington 50 years ago to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, the text in his hand didn’t contain the words “I have a dream.”

That refrain, and the part of the address it punctuated and propelled, was improvised on the spot. Having written a good speech — a working title was “Normalcy — Never Again” — King instead gave one of the greatest of the 20th century.

There are other things that most of us don’t know about this storied speech. The march wasn’t King’s first use of the “dream” refrain. He came to rue the phrase, and by the time he died, the speech had faded from public memory.

King spoke on Aug. 28, 1963, at the biggest, most important civil rights demonstration in American history. It was the heart of the civil rights movement — eight years after the anti-segregation Montgomery bus boycott; three years after the lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville and Greensboro, N.C.; two years after the first Freedom Rides on interstate buses through the South; and three months after police in Birmingham, Ala., horrified the nation by using attack dogs and fire hoses against women and children protesting segregated public facilities.

At least 250,000 people had jammed the National Mall to demand “jobs and freedom,” including passage of a civil rights bill. But all many people know or remember is King, preaching a gospel of hope from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

On the day of the march, more than two-thirds of Negroes (as African Americans were then known) lacked the right to vote, attend integrated schools or use the same public facilities as whites.

But King’s movement finally had made civil rights the nation’s top domestic political issue. The summer would see 1,122 civil rights demonstrations around the nation and about 20,000 arrests, almost all in the South.

On the Wednesday morning of the march, Washington was tense. Outside the city, thousands of combat troops were ready to move in, in case of trouble. Many businesses were closed. White House lawyers had drawn up martial-law orders for President Kennedy to sign if necessary.

The crowd gathered slowly at the Washington Monument and marched to the Lincoln Memorial, where the movement’s leaders would address them. King, not yet 35, went last.

He had worked on the speech over the previous four days, finally finishing a few hours before dawn in his suite at the Willard Hotel.

As millions watched on television — all three networks had cut away from regular programming — King began reading from typed text. He invoked the words of the president whose likeness loomed in the background: “Five score years ago …” King said, the Emancipation Proclamation “came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night” of the slaves’ captivity.

But 100 years later, he said, “the Negro still is not free.” The promises of Lincoln’s proclamation, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were like a “bad check.” Now, he said, we’re here to cash it.

After 10 minutes, he was more than halfway through a recitation that had been well received but was, as King biographer Taylor Branch would write, “far from historic” and in places “clubfooted.”

Then, King looked up. He put aside his text, for he had seen — or just as likely sensed — an opportunity.

This in itself was not unusual; King rarely spoke from a text, preferring to assemble speeches and sermons from an array of what Hansen called his “set pieces” — bits of oratory based on Bible stories or verses, songs, old sermons and other sources.

Now, King began skipping whole paragraphs from his prepared text. Some on the platform noticed, including Clarence Jones, a King adviser who had worked on the speech. “He’s off. He’s on his own now. He’s inspired,” Jones told Hansen in 2002, four decades later.

Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier and was one of King’s favorite gospel singers, cried, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”

Although it’s not clear whether King heard her, he did.

“I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. It is a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”

Having raised his eyes, he now had to raise his voice to be heard over the growing applause. He continued to profess his dream, repeating the refrain seven more times, moving from justice and equality to something deeper — a human bond transcending race.

“I have a dream that some day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

It was as if only once he was up there, gazing out, could King see a future many that day could not: “… in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!”

To his wife, Coretta, it seemed King had forgotten time itself, that his words flowed “from some higher place.”

He ended suddenly, returning to the speech that had been lying unread on the lectern for the last line: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty — we are free at last!”

For a moment the audience was stunned. Silence. Then, a rocking ovation.

Ralph Abernathy, King’s deputy and a fellow preacher, told him, “Leader, you swept today.”

At the White House, President Kennedy — who with King would produce much of 20th-century America’s memorable oratory — turned to an aide: “He’s damn good.”

Kennedy and his aides had honed his inaugural address for weeks, and he had read its stirring words as written; at Gettysburg, Lincoln gave the speech he had written. But King created a masterpiece on the fly, “like some sort of jazz musician,” said David J. Garrow, whose King biography, Bearing the Cross, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. “It’s the spontaneous parts of the speech that people remember.”

What has happened in the years since these powerful words were spoken can be debated forever.  Whether the dream lives on, was fulfilled, or turned into a nightmare (as Dr. King often asserted before his assassination) does not diminish the message that resonated with people all over the world.

Join us tonight, LIVE at 9PM ET, for this discussion, and the latest developments on our coming military involvement in Syria.

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This article has 9 comments

  1. Denny NNWofLA

    Oh, the outrage foaming from the mouths of John Kerry, Joe
    Biden and Pres-O. It’s just enough to whip me into a warlike
    frenzy! The use of chemical weapons of mass destruction used
    on innocent people certainly is a most egregious offense and
    the perpetrator must be severely punished, even destroyed.

    The use of lethal chemicals is too far out of bounds in any
    civilized society to go unpunished. Therefore, I implore this
    administration to attack and render this enemy of humanity
    neutralized. BP must be held to answer for it’s crimes in the
    Gulf of Mexico.

  2. C_

    “Iraq is a long way from Ohio, but what happens there matters a great deal here. For the risks that the leaders of a rogue state will use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against us or our allies is the greatest security threat we face.”
    – Town Hall Meeting on Iraq at Ohio State University, February 18, 1998

    “He will use those weapons of mass destruction again, as he has ten times since 1983.” Sandy Berger, Clinton National Security Adviser, Feb, 18, 1998

    “[W]e urge you, after consulting with Congress, and consistent with the U.S. Constitution and laws, to take necessary actions (including, if appropriate, air and missile strikes on suspect Iraqi sites) to respond effectively to the threat posed by Iraq’s refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs.” – Letter to President Clinton, signed by Sens. Carl Levin, Tom Daschle, John Kerry, and others Oct. 9, 1998

    “Saddam Hussein has been engaged in the development of weapons of mass destruction technology which is a threat to countries in the region and he has made a mockery of the weapons inspection process.” Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D, CA), Dec. 16, 1998

    “Hussein has … chosen to spend his money on building weapons of mass destruction and palaces for his cronies.”
    – Madeline Albright, Clinton Secretary of State, Nov. 10, 1999

    “If Saddam rejects peace and we have to use force, our purpose is clear. We want to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program.” – President Clinton, Feb. 17, 1998

  3. Serajaddin

    My yesterday´s comment to be corrected as: When they were shooting cruise missiles to Iraq they were landing 70 miles
    Away in Iran.
    Being church night tonight, I heard this morning from Pap Antonio on Ed show that official US expenditure on churches on yearly basis is 71 billion dollars! WOW,This parasitic leach the capitalist and privetizer has transformed Christianity into prostitution business on the blood and labor of the other 99 percent. Now if
    You add the under current Judaism budget to that the annual budget should top 100 billions easily.

  4. Dick Cheney The War Criminal

    Today when I opened up my web browser, I saw that Donald Rumsfeld has come out against the possible Syrian invasion. Come on, Obama, you know you’re on the wrong side when even a war criminal like Rumsfeld thinks this invasion is a bad idea!

    P.S. I know, Rumsfeld is only against the Syrian invasion because the Republicans are against anything Obama isfor but still, I’m just saying.

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