"I started out reading the speech," recalled Martin Luther King, Jr., then "all of a sudden this thing came out of me that I have used-I'd used it many times before, that thing about 'I have a dream'-and I just felt that I wanted to use it here. I don't know why, I hadn't thought about it before the speech." Folk history of the March on Washington would record that Mahalia Jackson, who just minutes earlier had seized the audience's collective heart with her rendition of "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned," called out in the midst of King's oration, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin!"
And so he did. "I was near my beloved Dr. King when he put aside his prepared speech and let the breath of God thunder through him," remembered Joan Baez, "and up over my head I saw freedom, and all around me I heard it ring." According to Coretta Scott King, the words of her thirty-four-year-old husband "flowed from some higher place," and "for that brief moment the Kingdom of God seemed to have come on earth." After King finished, reported Lerone Bennett, Jr., grown men and women "wept unashamedly." No doubt Time magazine could have chosen a more appropriate metaphor in reporting that King "enslaved his audience," but this was true even of those who feared his message. Because of its power to influence the masses, concluded the head of the FBI's Domestic Intelligence Division, King's "demagogic speech" made him the nation's "most dangerous Negro."
As was his custom, King began speaking in measured cadences, then gathered passion and exuberance as he proceeded. Although his colleagues had persuaded him to take more than the five minutes allotted each speaker-he ended up speaking for about sixteen minutes-it may be that King discarded his prepared text in favor of "this thing" about the dream because he realized he had not yet truly connected with his audience, despite the applause and shouts of approbation that greeted him throughout the first two-thirds of his speech. The result was a cascading vision, rich with historical resonance and contemporary significance, whose cumulative effect remains astounding and moving a half century later:
I say to you today, my friends, so 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.
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."
I have a dream that one 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.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification," one day right there 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.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
Here is virtually the whole of King's repertory: the quotation from the Declaration of Independence, which appeared countless times in his speeches and sermons; the challenge to the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike to live as brothers and sisters; the hallmark metaphors in which the oppressive weight of injustice, generation after generation, comes palpably alive; the hope that one's character, not the color of one's skin, shall be the basis of judgment and reward; the attack on states' rights framed in the daring terms of black and white children holding hands; the biblical injunction, here from the prophet Isaiah, to realize justice not only in God's heaven but on God's earth.
Rather than stumbling over his words, as it might have seemed during the awkward pause that is clearly audible after "I say to you today," King had begun improvising-much to his benefit, as Drew Hansen has shown, for the remainder of the prepared text, though suitable for the occasion, was pedestrian by comparison. Following an invocation of the book of Amos-"until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," one of his favorite scriptures-King had intended to conclude his speech with an exhortation to join nonviolent protest to political lobbying:
And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction. Let us go back with all the strength we can muster to get strong civil rights legislation in this session of Congress. Let us go down from this place to ascend other peaks of purpose. Let us descend from this mountaintop to climb other hills of hope.
Instead, his spontaneous "I have a dream" refrain led to an even more stirring peroration, one he had also used before, that turned the words of "America"-"My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing"-into a magnificent vision of racial justice spreading across the nation.
Because of his capacious memory and his fondness for particular stories and rhetorical constructions, King often repeated, sometimes off the cuff, especially effective passages from earlier sermons, speeches, and writings. Both as a speaker and as a writer, he also borrowed from many sources, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, sometimes with attribution and sometimes without. As King emerged as the nation's most prominent civil rights leader, his schedule of speaking engagements, often several a day, severely limited his time for writing and forced him to rely increasingly on his staff, as well as outside editors and ghostwriters, for assistance with his speeches, essays, and books. Even so, he was able to draw on an imposing body of his own writing, both sermons and more scholarly work, reaching back to his student days. Neither his borrowings nor the role played by others in his oratory and writing should diminish the fact that the words he spoke and those that appeared under his name in print were always the embodiment of a vision that was uniquely his own.
Especially in the case of the Dream speech, and not least because of his extemporaneous departure from the text, we can say without question that this was King speaking the exact words he wanted the nation and the world to hear. Along with members of his staff, King had worked late into the night before the March revising his speech-returning to ideas, metaphors, and passages that had been successful before and trying out new ones, seeking just the right tone, the right balance, the right cadences. And yet the parts of the speech for which he is most remembered were nowhere to be found on the pages before him. Speaking suddenly from the heart, 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.
"Someday, I'm going to have me some big words like that," a young King told his mother after hearing an eloquent preacher. At Morehouse College, at Crozer Theological Seminary, in his graduate study at Boston University, and in the early years of his ministry, King worked hard on both his pulpit style and the content of his sermons. Like the black preachers of old described by James Weldon Johnson, he spoke a language "saturated with the sublime phraseology of the Hebrew prophets and steeped in the idioms of King James English." At the same time, his sermons included little of the straining, moaning, and whooping that constituted the performative essence of some African American preaching. King relied instead on an impressive combination of erudition, passages quoted or paraphrased from works he liked, and a beautiful baritone voice-"each syllable had the timbre of an African drum," according to one listener-which grew rich and darkly melodic, weary with the weight of prophecy, over time.
From the outset, his congregations, church women especially, loved his preaching. "When I hears Dr. King," said one of them, "I see angel's wings flying 'round his head." Short on organizational skills, by some accounts, King was long on charisma, courage, and moral authority, and his leadership, thought Wyatt T. Walker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1960 to 1964, came from his ability "to get more warm bodies in the street at one time than anybody else we've ever seen in American history." Recalling how most southern blacks were resigned to segregation until King gave them hope for something different, Charles Gratton of Birmingham, Alabama, said that whenever he heard King talk "it seemed like he was touching me from the inside."
In addition to his inventory of speaking skills, observed the television journalist Dan Rather, King possessed a "well-honed ability to size up an audience," to know what to say and how to say it. For that same reason, said others, King's response to the disparate needs of his audiences made him a "conservative militant" who took a stance of "radical moderation." (Not moderate enough, objected King's own denominational leader, the president of the black National Baptist Convention Joseph H. Jackson, who considered the Dream speech a "dangerous, unwarranted protest.") Carefully crafted, perfectly modulated, King's performance at the March on Washington struck a precarious balance between insistence and reassurance, a feat difficult to repeat and impossible to sustain when he took his message to the slums of the urban North. "You just can't communicate with the ghetto dweller and at the same time not frighten many whites to death," King said in a 1966 interview. "I don't know what the answer is to that. My role perhaps is to interpret to the white world. There must be somebody to communicate to two worlds."
Like so many in the freedom movement, King fervently believed, in the words of the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," that "God is on our side." Speaking in the vernacular of the black church and insisting that it was a "voice out of Bethlehem two thousand years ago [that] said all men are equal," King made God's covenant a covenant of racial justice, a message of liberation succinctly stated in his description of sit-in protestors in "Letter from Birmingham Jail":
One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thusly, carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
When King addressed his audience as "children of God" or "God's children," as he did three times in the Dream speech, he made both a theological and a political argument. Not only were all human beings the children of God, but all Americans, regardless of skin color, were children of the nation's Founding Fathers.
Within his own lifetime, however, King grew despondent about his dream. In his Christmas Eve sermon of 1967, he looked back soberly: "In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington, D.C., and talked to the nation about many things. Toward the end of the afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare." He meant not only the Ku Klux Klan's bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963, which took the lives of four young black girls preparing for Sunday choir. He meant the riots in Newark, Watts (Los Angeles), Detroit, and other cities he could do nothing to stop. ("I had a dream, I had a dream," jeered one resident of Watts. "Hell, we don't need no damn dreams. We want jobs.") He meant the escalation of the Vietnam War, which he opposed with much of his energy-far too much, his critics said-in the last year of his life.
King's peculiar locution-a dream "I had had"-which he repeated in Memphis on the eve of his assassination, made it seem that his hope for racial justice really had been a dream, that even its memory had begun to fade. One month before his death, King cited God's words of consolation to King David for the temple of which he had dreamed but which he had failed to build: "And the Lord said unto David my father, Whereas it was in thine heart to build an house unto my name, thou didst well that it was in thine heart" (1 Kings 8:18). The dream remained in David's heart, the house of justice unfinished, and the scripture's lesson, King concluded, was that "life is a continual story of shattered dreams."
* * *
Whether such a melancholy assessment was accurate depends on what one thinks King's dream was. One might say simply that each incremental step forward in the civil rights movement was a part of the dream coming true. "In a very real sense," said King when the jails of Birmingham filled with protestors for the first time in May 1963, "this is the fulfillment of a dream." Even better was the successful conclusion of his campaign of nonviolent direct action in that most segregated of southern cities. When Birmingham "discovered a conscience" and signed a desegregation agreement, King proclaimed, our "dream came true." Riding high on the activists' triumph in Alabama, the March on Washington itself then became the dream. "Mr. Randolph," said a jubilant Bayard Rustin to A. Philip Randolph, who had championed the event for more than two decades, "it looks like your dream has come true."
As though they might find the secret source of the Sermon on the Mount, biographers and scholars have tried to determine the origins of King's memorable phrase. It may have emerged from the movement's rank and file. James Bevel, one of King's colleagues in the SCLC, believed the inspiration for "I have a dream" must have come from a 1962 service he and King conducted in the burned-out remains of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Terrell County, Georgia, one of seven churches torched by arsonists in a two-week period. As a young woman prayed, Bevel recalled, she began to intone, "I have a dream," and soon the whole congregation, King included, was swaying to its rhythm. Equally certain she knew the source, SCLC staff member Dorothy Cotton remembers telling King about a white woman she heard say to a black woman, in Albany, Georgia, "I have a dream one day that my child can reach out and hold hands with your child ... and that it won't matter."
It may be that the inspiration for King's dream descended from antebellum times. "I had dreams, horrid dreams of freedom through a sea of blood," recalled Frederick Douglass of his days as a slave. "But when I heard of the Anti-Slavery movement, light broke in my dark mind. Bloody visions fled away, and I saw the star of liberty peering above the horizon." Or perhaps it came from a more recent instance of the black jeremiad. "This is a wonderful world, which the founding fathers dreamed," remarked W. E. B. Du Bois in his Autobiography, "until their sons drowned it in the blood of slavery and devoured it in greed." Or from black literature. "Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed," wrote Langston Hughes in his 1936 poem "Let America Be America Again." In Killers of the Dream (1949), King's friend Lillian Smith, a prominent white liberal, described the tragic divide between those southerners committed to integration, the dreamers, and those who denied the dream by any means necessary, the killers. "How many dead dreams will it take to destroy us all?" Smith asked in the preface to a new edition of her book in 1961, where she recounted the phone call a frightened King placed to Attorney General Robert Kennedy from the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, under siege by a white mob bent on attacking the civil rights demonstrators gathered within.
Excerpted from King's Dreamby Eric J. Sundquist Copyright © 2009 by Eric J. Sundquist. Excerpted by permission.
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