Perhaps no speech since Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has summarized the past, present, and future of the United States as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. It had been one hundred years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and many African Americans were demanding that the U.S. government do more to secure their rights. King addressed a gathering of over 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. Their march to that memorial was a symbol of their desire for a new civil rights bill to be quickly passed by Congress and signed by President John F. Kennedy.
King carefully prepared a written speech for the occasion. Subtly alluding to Lincoln, King wrote “fivescore years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” As Eric J. Sundquist illustrates in King’s Dream, King attempted to show that the promises made one hundred years earlier were as yet unfulfilled. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were seen as “promissory notes” yet to be satisfied.
The timing of the speech was significant for other reasons. Many African Americans were beginning to believe that King’s philosophy of nonviolent, peaceful protest was taking too long to accomplish results. He was under challenge by younger members of the movement such as John Lewis, whose more radical speech immediately before King’s that day had to be toned down at the last minute. He also faced the challenge of the emerging Black Power movement and the Nation of Islam, both of which called for more direct and forceful action against segregation. King replied to these challenges that African Americans could not “. . . satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” It was clear, however, that there was no turning the Civil Rights movement back.
In the chapter “Soul Force,” Sundquist traces a subtle, emerging black consciousness in the early 1960’s. Signs of frustration, anger, and a desire for freedom began to appear in poetry, art, and, above all, music. Jazz in particular became the “language of dissent,” as Sundquist describes it. Music became a precursor of the great changes to come.
Sundquist also shows that King made very effective use of Scripture. As an ordained minister steeped in theology, he was able to frame a speech that appealed to biblical prophecy, as in his Promised Land analogy, and to Old Testament parables and symbolism. The black church has always been an integral part of African American culture, and King’s audience understood the connections he was drawing between the Bible and the Civil Rights movement.
As Sundquist emphasizes, King delivered his speech in the shadow of Lincoln’s statue. Speaking at the Lincoln Memorial gave King’s speech historical legitimacy. The Civil War did not settle the question of the status of free blacks in America, especially in the South. In a sense, King chose to speak, one hundred years later, at the great monument to ask that Lincoln’s promise of a “new birth of freedom” be fulfilled at last.
Sunquist also reads King’s use of the lyrics of “America” (“My country ’tis of thee . . .”). The author claims that this was not a spontaneous decision on King’s part. The song had been sung by African Americans for generations, even though a “sweet land of liberty” was not a reality for them. King employed the lyrics as an ideala promise to be realized when freedom and equality are achieved. The resonance of the song with King’s audience also demonstrates, Sundquist notes, that most African Americans, in spite of the inequality they had suffered for so long, still considered themselves Americans. They believed in the American Dream and were willing to work toward a day when true equality would be theirs. For them, it was a song about hope yet to be fulfilled.
Watching and listening to the speech very carefully, Sundquist detects a moment when King abandoned his prepared text and began to preach extemporaneously. King never fully explained why this happened. Perhaps the excitement of the moment brought out the preacher in him; perhaps he saw an opportunity to profoundly inspire the huge crowd. In any case, he drew his words from writings and sermons delivered over many years. This has led some critics to charge that this portion of King’s speech was plagiarized. Sermons, however, are not meant to be well-documented scholarly treatises....
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