27 August 2010

"I Have a Dream" -- August 28, 1963

On August 28, 1963 the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. gave one of the most famous speeches in United States history (see the video above). In a review of Eric J. Sundquist's book on the speech last year in the NYT, Anthony Lewis writes:
“I have a dream” is the refrain by which the speech is known — better known to Americans today than any other speech, even the Gettysburg Address. (In 2008, according to one study, 97 percent of American teenagers recognized the words as King’s.) But for all its familiarity and indisputable greatness, the origins and larger meaning of the speech are not generally understood.

The speech and all that surrounds it — background and consequences — are brought magnificently to life in Eric Sund­quist’s new book, “King’s Dream.” A professor of literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, Sundquist has written about race and ethnicity in American culture. In this book he gives us drama and emotion, a powerful sense of history combined with illuminating scholarship.

A remarkable fact of which I was unaware is that the last third of the speech — the part about the dream — was extemporized by King. He had a text, completed the night before. But as he was addressing the crowd, protesting the indignities and brutalities suffered by blacks, he put the prepared speech aside, paused for a moment and then introduced an entirely new theme.

“I still have a dream,” he said. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

“I have 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.’ ”

With that quotation from the Declaration of Independence, King made clear that his vision of the future for black Americans was for them to be part of the larger society, not embittered opponents of it. He reiterated the point a few minutes later. Faith in his dream, he said, will bring a day “when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.’ ” Those “I have a dream” paragraphs still bring tears to my eyes.

The sources of that last third of the speech, fascinatingly explored by Sund­quist, include King’s own previous speeches, Negro spirituals, the Bible. We hear Handel’s “Messiah” when he says, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted.” But of course the words come from the book of Isaiah.

The image of the dream appeared in earlier King speeches, again coupled with ultimate belief in America. In Charlotte, N.C., in 1960 he said: “In a real sense America is essentially a dream — a dream yet unfulfilled. It is the dream of a land where men of all races, colors and creeds will live together as brothers.” . . .

Why did King abandon his written text that day at the Memorial? It may be, Sund­quist suggests, that despite shouts of approval he felt he had not really connected with the audience. His wife, Coretta Scott King, thought the words “flowed from some higher place.” In any event, the result was for the ages.

“Speaking suddenly from the heart,” Sundquist writes, “he delivered a speech elegantly structured, commanding in tone, and altogether more profound than anything heard on American soil in nearly a century. In the midst of speaking, King rewrote his speech and created a new national scripture.”
It is difficult to watch that speech and not realize that as messy and frustrating as politics can be, there is something utterly virtuous in our collective struggle to achieve our special and common interests.

Enjoy the speech and have a nice weekend!