The Story behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream
by Gary Younge
Book Review by Kam Williams
“A great speech is both timely and timeless. First and foremost, it must touch and move its immediate audience… But it must also simultaneously reach over the heads of the assembled to posterity.
The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech qualified on both counts. It was delivered in a year that started with Alabama Governor George Wallace, standing on the steps of the state capitol, declaring ‘Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!’
The speech starts, both literally and metaphorically, in the shadow of Lincoln, ends with a quote from a Negro spiritual, and in between quotes the song ‘America the Beautiful’ while evoking ‘a dream rooted in the American dream’ and drawing references from the bible and Constitution…
Fifty years later, the speech endures as a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement… This gripping book unearths the fascinating chronicle behind ‘The speech’ and the revealing events surrounding The March on Washington.”
-- Excerpted from Introduction
On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, an unapologetically poetic appeal for the elusive equal rights long denied African-Americans. Unfortunately, over the years, the late martyr’s historic address has all but been reduced to his wish that “my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
A half-century later we find that “content of character” phrase being appropriated, quoted out of context and willfully misrepresented by arch-conservatives from Glenn Beck to Herman Cain in service of a right-wing agenda. For this reason, it is rather refreshing to find an opus like this being published on the 50th anniversary to remind us of the true meaning of Dr. King’s moving remarks.
The author of the book is Gary Younge, a broadcaster and columnist based in Chicago. Here, the award-winning journalist does a masterful job of not only dissecting Dr. King’s words, but of filling in much of the back story to the events leading up to his taking the podium.
We learn that “I Have a Dream” was not the planned focus of the speech, in fact, that divinely-inspired, emotional crescendo was substantially improvised on the spot as an afterthought. King’s intended theme merely revolved around an earnest explanation that blacks had descended on the District of Columbia “to cash a promissory note for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
For, while preparing his speech on the eve of the march, King had been advised by a colleague to cut out the lines about his having a dream. “It’s trite… It’s cliché,” Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker warned.
But, the next day on the National Mall, as Dr. King came close to finishing reading from his prepared text, gospel great Mahalia Jackson started prompting him to go off script. “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” she shouted repeatedly, referring to a familiar refrain she’d heard her dear friend eloquently riff about in sermons several times before.
Fortunately, Martin did indeed heed Mahalia, and began waxing romantic about his prophetic vision. “Aw, sh*t, he’s using the dream,” Reverend Walker moaned. Yet, as Coretta Scott King would recall, “At that moment, it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.