What went into the Dream?

August 22, 2013

Brian Jones reviews a book that provides the background to Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech--and the lessons for today's antiracist struggle.

ENTERING PUBLIC life as the leader of a struggle to end racial segregation on public buses in one Southern city in 1954, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went on to become a national and international figure.

Although he is mostly remembered as an advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience, by the end of his life, King drew ire from friends and foes alike for his radical critique of what he called the "giant triplets": racism, extreme materialism and militarism. In 1967, he was widely criticized for speaking out against the American war in Vietnam, and almost exactly one year later, he was assassinated while supporting a public-sector strike for unionization in Memphis.

In life, King was a principled yet controversial figure, a tireless activist who gave more than 350 speeches a year. Three decades after his death, though, King has become defined primarily by just one speech (and later, for conservatives, by one part of that one speech)--what has come to be known as the "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington.

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (National Archives)

In his latest book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream, British author, broadcaster and award-winning columnist Gary Younge performs an essential public service by helping us to remember what mainstream accounts tend to forget about King, his speech and the movement he served.

THE SPEECH is a quick read, combining brisk historical narrative with Younge's talent for social and political observation and analysis.

Younge begins by recounting the larger social moment that lent the March on Washington such force. Following the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, the civil rights movement truly became a mass movement throughout the South.

In three months leading up to King's speech, there were 758 demonstrations in 168 cities, leading to 14,733 arrests. The experience of these battles led many activists to draw more radical conclusions--Rosa Parks, "an ostensibly demur icon of the movement," emerged from a meeting with Malcolm X convinced that his philosophy was closer to her own.

In roughly the same time period, some 17 African nations gained independence from European colonization. In this context, the demand for legal equality expressed in King's speech seemed not only "plausible," Young says, "but inevitable."

The Speech then narrows its lens to recount the events of the march itself. Bayard Rustin was the chief organizer. His political acumen and organizational prowess were widely respected, but some liberal elements in the civil rights coalition objected to being associated with an open homosexual, who was an ex-communist to boot.

Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, was particularly concerned. Legendary trade union leader A. Philip Randolph resolved the conflict by agreeing to take on the title of march organizer, provided he could name a deputy organizer. He named Rustin, who proceeded to, in fact, mastermind the march from top to bottom.

"We planned out precisely the number of toilets that would be needed for a quarter of a million people," Rustin remembered, "how many blankets we would need for people who were coming in early...how many doctors...We anticipated all problems." Rustin raised money for a sound system that would allow speakers to be heard within a square mile. Unbeknownst to him, the Justice Department inserted a cut-off switch that would allow agents to turn off the microphone at any moment if "insurgents" took the stage.

But the Feds never had to pull that switch--the march organizers were effective censors in their own right. Despite objections, not a single woman was allowed to speak--only to sing.

Student leader John Lewis wrote the most radical speech of the day. Reading a copy of the prepared text, Washington's Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle objected to Lewis' metaphorical use of Sherman's march to the sea. "We shall pursue our own 'scorched earth' policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground--nonviolently," Lewis wanted to say. Rustin, Randolph and King pressured him to remove the most challenging passages, but--for most of the day--Lewis held out.

Lewis wanted to call Kennedy's civil rights bill "too little and too late." The elders could see the passage of civil rights legislation within reach and feared the consequences of offending the Kennedy administration. "[A]s the day progressed," writes Younge, "negotiations over the metaphors within [Lewis' speech] became metaphors for the deeper divisions within the movement."

The youth activists that Lewis represented were increasingly frustrated by Democratic Party foot-dragging and delay tactics while their members languished in southern jails. Malcolm X pooh-poohed the march as a "church picnic," but Younge argues that "[g]iven the thousands of people who had been arrested all over the country, it could just as easily have been called a mass gathering of former political prisoners."

LIKE A camera pulling focus tighter and tighter, The Speech proceeds to zoom in on King's speech itself, eventually parsing it phrase by phrase. The "I Have a Dream" sequence of the speech, Younge reminds us, was not part of the prepared remarks--King included it extemporaneously. His advisers had heard him use similar formulations in other speeches--Wyatt Walker, in particular, argued it was "too trite, too cliché" and worried King had "used it too many times already."

Students of rhetoric will appreciate Younge's analysis of King's use of anaphora, of metaphor and of the overall structure of the speech. Younge pays close attention to King's imagery and, where possible, presents a plausible back stories to explain their presence.

The speech, Younge argues, represents a moment in American society when the concept of formal, legal equality for African Americans had truly arrived. "[T]he civil rights movement delivered the last moral victory in America for which there is still a consensus," Younge writes. "The speech's appeal lies in the fact that, whatever the interpretation, it remains the most eloquent, poetic, unapologetic and public articulation of that victory."

But Younge also believes that the speech contains radical undertones that are less appreciated. The demands of the speech, Younge points out, are "at once utopian and reasonable, idealistic and just"--and thus challenge "the notion that King was in any way a moderate." King said:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "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 selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

On more than one occasion during King's speech that day, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who stood near him on the stage, called out "Tell them about the dream, Martin." Whether or not he heard her, King veered from his prepared remarks to do just that, to electrifying effect.

The Speech closes with a reflection on the meaning of King, his speech and the civil rights movement in the context of Obama's America and the struggle against racism today.

Younge recounts the resurrection of King from a figure who was widely discredited in the mainstream to his present historical sainthood:

So white Americans came to embrace King in the same way that most white South Africans came to accept Nelson Mandela: grudgingly and gratefully, retrospectively, selectively, without grace but with considerable guile. By the time they realized their dislike of him was spent and futile he had created a world in which admiring him was in their own self-interest. Because, in short, they had no choice.

Younge treads carefully with the election of Barack Obama and the state of African Americans during his tenure as president. Citing demographic and poll data, Younge points out that African Americans express rising social optimism, even as their overall material situation has actually deteriorated. Thus, the election of a president of African descent remains merely a symbolic victory. However, Younge cautions:

While symbols should not be dismissed as insubstantial, they should not be mistaken as substance either. The presence of underrepresented people in leadership positions only has any significantly positive meaning, beyond their own personal advancement and symbolic value, if it challenges whatever obstacles created the conditions for that underrepresentation. To believe otherwise is to trade equal opportunities for photo opportunities, whereby a system looks different but acts the same.

This weekend, thousands will travel to Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. We will stand at the doorstep of an American political system that, with half a century's reflection, looks different but acts the same. Fifty years ago, protesters gathered there in the shadow of segregation, lynching, poverty and political disenfranchisement.

Fifty years later, the resegregation of our schools and cities, the murder of Trayvon Martin (and countless others), the rise of economic inequality and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act will no doubt motivate the marchers.

In The Speech, Gary Younge provides an accessible, thoughtful and thoroughly indispensable meditation on the meaning of August 1963 for those of us trying to find our way in August 2013. At a moment when he could have easily stuck to the script, and focused on the major legislative victory at hand, King dared to dream big. That's as good a lesson for today as any other.

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