The address that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave 50 years ago today has come to be known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. But the most memorable refrain in U.S. speech history was a work of improvisation that any jazz musician could appreciate.
King, on the eve of the March on Washington, was unsatisfied with the speech’s conclusion. The Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, a Chester resident who was part of King’s speech-writing team, was shuttling him suggested passages.
“The final speech was prepared over time, but the ‘I have a dream’ section was a closing, we used it a lot around the country. I thought we used it too much, must have been 25 or 30 times, started earlier in the year. It was well worn,” recalled Walker, King’s chief of staff.
“The night before the march, Andy (Andrew) Young and I ran up and down the steps of the (Willard) hotel, trying to write a new ending of his speech, but we weren’t successful,” he said. “We decided that there wasn’t going to be a prohibition against that (I have a dream) section of the speech, and it was left up to Dr. King to decide whether or not he was going to use it.”
But as King stood before 250,000 people to give the most important speech of his life, he was still uncertain about how to end it, said Drew D. Hansen, author of “The Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation.”
“He didn’t know the night before when he was writing it, and he didn’t know that day when he brought it to the podium,” said Hansen, a Seattle-area resident and a Democratic member of the Washington state legislature.
“He knew it wasn’t adequate for the occasion. He is circling and circling and circling and he doesn’t know where he will land.”
King found his bearings, using what historians describe as his keen sense of audience and moment, his rhetorical dexterity and “set pieces” from previous speeches to provide a fitting emotional coda to the march — and much more.
“The speech has become one way of understanding what it means to be American,” Hansen said in a recent interview. “It’s like the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address. … It’s one of the defining texts of our country.”
But contrary to the iconic role King’s 17-minute speech has assumed in American culture, it largely vanished from the public consciousness until his assassination on April 4, 1968.
The times and movement weren’t conducive to reflection — there was civil rights legislation to secure, voters to register, lawsuits to litigate.
“People weren’t sitting around and musing on what speeches would go down in history. Everyone was working,” Hansen said.
Once the speech was rediscovered, it became subject to a reinterpretation that offended old soldiers of the movement.
Conservatives invoked King’s name and his vision of a colorblind society in opposing affirmative action, even though King had asserted that the nation needed to do something to level the playing field for black Americans victimized by centuries of oppression and discrimination.
By the time President Ronald Reagan signed into law a national holiday on King’s birthday in 1983, the speech had “acquired new meaning as an artifact of a more hopeful era,” wrote William P. Jones in “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.”
Activists and academicians bristled that by emphasizing a utopian vision while ignoring the harsh realities that preceded it, people were watering down both the speech and the man.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was an advocate of basic American ideas, but he was also a forceful critic of them,” said Eric S. King, an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Union University.
“People have chosen those parts of speech that confirm … what they believe in.”
In contrast to the doubt surrounding his “landing,” the launch of King’s prepared text was sure as he established the historical context of the rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial:
“Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation. … But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free.”
Moments later, in language that reflected the march’s economic focus, he said: “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
And he sparked loud applause when he took America to task for failing to live up to its ideals:
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
“This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable rights’ of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ”
That passage signals the civil rights leader’s awareness of capitalism’s shortcomings, Eric King said.
If you focus on the “dream” element of the speech, he said, “you’ll miss why he was in Memphis when he was assassinated” — in support of striking black sanitation workers who’d staged a walkout to protest unequal wages and poor working conditions.
For local activist Ana Edwards, the focus on “the dream” is no accident.
“Those who have been crafting the story and crafting the legacy for us (are) reaching back for the safest possible message, which is to make people feel comfortable and warm and fuzzy,” she said.
For Edwards, the passage below is one of the most resonant:
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.”
“Business as usual” for black America in 1963 tended to be more the stuff of nightmares than dreams.
King, in his speech, described weary travelers unable to find lodging, the horrors of police brutality, and voter suppression and voter disillusionment: “ 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.”
Among those in the audience, “about 30 yards from the speaker’s platform” was Clarence L. Townes Jr., a businessman and political activist who’d later head Richmond Renaissance, a public-private biracial partnership to encourage downtown economic development.
“I was just totally overcome by the event,” Townes, now 86, recalled. “And when (King) spoke, it was as if a new glory had come over us. It was amazing when he made his final remarks.
“You see, I was one ... who’d lived through all the miseries of segregation: riding the back of the bus, not being able to change clothes in Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads, going to the Booker T. and Maggie Walker theaters. And this day was … a new beginning.”
Hansen says you can’t really understand “the dream” without hearing the part of the text that precedes it. “You have to understand how dark and desperate and brutal it was before you understand how magnificent ‘I have a dream’ would have sounded.”
“The end of the speech is without question the most poetic and powerful part,” he said. “It gives these visions of an America free from the sin of racial discrimination. And in many ways, the struggle to end legal segregation in the South was mostly successful.
“That’s a very different story from the story against poverty and segregation in the North that King talks about in the rest of the “I Have a Dream” speech. And it’s a lot easier to think about what we’ve done right as a country than to think about where we still have work to do.”
King’s speech is justifiably remembered as the most powerful of the day, “but taken out of context and often viewed as the only speech, it was the least representative or attentive to the specific goals and demands of the mobilization,” writes Jones in “The March on Washington.”
Hansen says that King would not want us to be content if “we still had the segregated schools and high unemployment rates and poverty among Americans of all races. That was the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.”
Richmond lawyer Tommy P. Baer was 25 at the time of the speech and a recent Georgetown law school graduate when he found himself standing in front of the reflecting pool, about 200 feet from King.
“I knew it was a historic event and I believed then that attention needed to be drawn to the issues on which King was to speak and what the march was about,” he said. Also, the Kennedy administration was lukewarm on civil rights, “and this march certainly drew its attention.”
“I saw injustices being perpetrated against black communities, and the time was clearly ripe for change,” said Baer, a refugee from the Nazi Holocaust in Germany and the former international president of B’nai B’rith.
“I knew at the time that the speech was one for the ages,” Baer said, adding that “the dream” portion “really gave me the goose bumps, because that’s what this nation should be striving for.”
Baer said the only speech he ever heard to rival King’s was President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. Hansen acknowledged the greatness of Kennedy’s speech, the first inaugural address of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate. But in his view, King’s March on Washington address is “unquestionably” the greatest speech of the 20th century.
Townes was a politically active Republican and a member of the NAACP. He knew King and was a fraternity brother of A. Philip Randolph, the civil rights and labor leader who had worked two decades to make a march on Washington a reality. He attended Virginia Union University with Walker, King’s chief of staff.
Today, he says, “We have a long way to go. For a time, we felt very good. But since we have elected Obama president, it looks likes all the creeps are coming out of the closet, everywhere, in a lot of ways.”
He’s concerned that the opportunities that the march helped create for his children are not there for his grandchildren.
Edwards shares such concerns as she prepares to participate in Saturday’s March on Richmond. She is less focused on “the dream” than what King called “the fierce urgency of now.”
Another passage of the speech drives her: “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
She compared the 1963 “Dream” speech to the “Mountaintop” speech King made on the eve of his death in Memphis.
“He’s reaffirming that we’re not there yet. And that’s five years later,” Edwards said.
But on that August day in 1963, King’s speech somehow managed to suffuse the occasion with a hopefulness the times did not merit.
Civil rights leader Medgar Evers had been shot to death in his Mississippi driveway 2½ months before the march; four young girls would die in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing less than three weeks after the march.
In this context, “King somehow persuaded his audience that racial discrimination would one day be no more,” Hansen wrote.
“This was King’s prophetic gift: In order for America to become a truly integrated nation, Americans first needed to be able to envision what that nation would look like.”
And it wouldn’t have happened if King had stuck to his script.
“I asked Dr. King not to use the “I have a dream” section,” Walker recalled. “But I was outvoted. He had used it so much in different cities, but not on the world stage. I would have robbed the public of one of the greatest orations ever made.”
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Times-Dispatch political reporter Markus Schmidt also contributed to this report
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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.’ ”