Today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous speech, known as “I Have a Dream.” It deserves careful consideration, because it is widely regarded as the most important speech by a private citizen in American history.
The general public does not understand why that speech worked. The general public knows almost nothing about the content of the speech. The average person has never gone to YouTube and listened to it even once, let alone several times. I have listened to it very carefully. I regard it as a rhetorical masterpiece.
Let me rephrase that. I regard the final third of the speech as a rhetorical masterpiece. There is a reason for this. It was ad libbed. It is the most famous ad libbed speech in American history.
THE WRITTEN SPEECH
There are several accounts of how the speech was written. I am using the account written by Clarence B Jones, King’s associate, who was a lawyer. He is the author of a 2011 book on the speech: Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation Jones and King had worked together on speech-crafting before. One of the themes which King had used before had been recommended by Jones. This was the idea of a promissory note. It was a promissory note supposedly issued by Abraham Lincoln by the Emancipation Proclamation. The theme of the speech was this: the United States government in 1963 had not delivered on that 1863 note. In other words, with respect to Lincoln’s promissory note, it was a bad check. It had bounced repeatedly.
This was historically silly. Lincoln had issue no such note. But King appealed back to Jefferon’s “All men are created equal.” He invoked that as a promissory note. The fact that the Declaration of Independence never had any legal standing was beside the point. King was writing a speech, not an historical treatise. The Declaration was highly rhetorical. So was King’s speech.
He did not use the language of a bounced check, even though more of his listeners that day would have understood the reference. He spoke of a promissory note. This was the language of a lawyer. That is because it was written by a lawyer. Jones prides himself in being part of that process, although he does not claim that he was exclusively responsible for the final version. But there is no doubt that he was the source of that metaphor.
This metaphor was judicially clever. But it was not moving. People do not dedicate their lives to a cause on the basis of running a promissory note through the bank again, hoping that the account will have sufficient funds this time.
The first two-thirds of the speech was essentially a lawyer’s brief. It was delivered by a minister, a man who had made his reputation by being an eloquent minister speaking on civil and political issues. Why did he think that a lawyer’s brief would work in front of the largest gathering that had ever assembled in Washington D.C., and one of the most emotionally moving demonstrations in history? There were 250,000 people there. The largest assembly before that was about 47,000, the Bonus Army of 1932, in the Great Depression. It was a fifth the size. Also, the army under Douglas McArthur had run the Bonus Army out of town, and burned down their tents.
Oddly enough, there was a perfectly good biblical justification for this lawyer’s brief. In terms of the message of the Old Testament prophets, a lawyer’s brief was appropriate. The lawyers of the Old Testament were the prophets, and they had delivered a series of covenant lawsuits against the nation of Israel and the nation of Judah. Their targets were primarily the leaders, but they also included the whole society. These were legal briefs. So, there was a legitimate tradition behind the use of such language. But it is not common language in ecclesiastical circles. Nevertheless, we do not remember this speech as the promissory note speech. Yet that was the metaphorical heart of the original speech.
Everyone knew King was the headliner. That was why they had him speake last. This was to be the culmination of the march. This was to be the high point of the march. This was to leave a legacy. It did leave a legacy, but it was not the legacy of Jones and King who, the night before, had put the speech into its final form.
Jones describes what happened next. This should be in every textbook account of the speech. Yet it is not well known, although it has received some attention this year.
Because on the Lincoln Memorial steps, Martin, who had made his way into roughly the seventh paragraph of the speech I’d handed in, paused after saying, “We cannot turn back.” This alone was nothing unusual. The hesitations and breaks were all part of his oratory process, the rhythms he had mastered at the pulpit. Yet in this split second of silence, something historic and unexpected happened. Into that breach, Mahalia Jackson shouted to him from the speakers and organizers stand. She called out, “Tell ’em about the ‘Dream,’ Martin, tell ’em about the `Dream!'” Not many people heard her.
But I did.
And so did Martin. (pp. 111-12)
Mahalia Jackson had sung a brief snippet of a gospel song that had been made famous in the early 1950s by the Clara Ward Singers, “How I Got Over.” Yet in Jones’ version and several others, it is said that she sang “‘Buked and Scorned.” This is peculiar. If she did sing it, she sang it much earlier in the day. Here is what she sang, one event prior to the speech.
So, half way through the speech, when she told him to do what she thought he ought to do, he did it. If we are to believe Jones’ account, King without much of a transition simply scrapped the rest of the speech that he and Jones had worked on. He substituted the rhetoric from an earlier speech, delivered at Cobo Hall, “I have a dream.” Jackson had heard it there, and she thought that this was what the people needed in Washington.
Her sense of what was needed was exactly right. King hesitated only for a moment, we are told, and then he switched. He sensed it, and he did not hesitate.
The problem is, there is no corroborating evidence. The film of the speech indicates that Jones is incorrect.
THE CHRONOLOGY OF THE SUBSTITUTION
Jones says the transition came with the words, “we cannot turn back.” We hear this at 8:26 into the video. If Jackson said it then, it had no impact. King continues with his lawyer’s brief. He moves next to the section of the speech on not being satisfied. He goes through a list of conditions with which Negroes would no longer be satisfied.
As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. 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.
He continued to glancing down at his notes. He is clearly reading. He gets one word slightly wrong, then corrected it: “victim.”
This was now less a lawyer’s brief than a sociologists’ brief.
We see the change, or rather hear it, at 11:20: “I say to you, today, my friends. . . .” The camera is scanning the crowd. The crowd claps. He says nothing.
At 11:28, he picks back up. Here is where he switches from his prepared notes. You can see it. From that point on, he never looks down. He looks up to heaven, briefly, and then looks at the crowd.
He never looks back.
“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.” There is where the speech we remember began. Here was where lawyer King stepped aside, and Rev. King took over.
Later in the speech, he switches to liberty. He cited “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” He begins to talk about the mountains, as described in the song. He takes his audience on a kind of spiritual trek across the mountains of the Northeast, then to West, and then down to the hills of Mississippi, and as he says, the molehills. Over and over, he says this: “Let freedom ring.” He does not return to the dream imagery.
Finally, he ends with the famous phrase: “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
BYPASSING THE SOCIALISTS
With this, King overturned half of the march on Washington. We forget what half of the March on Washington was originally about: government jobs. The March on Washington was sponsored by the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
It was organized by a pair of socialists, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Randolph had run as a political candidate for the Socialist party in New York in the 1920s. Rustin had been a communist, but later softened somewhat, and wound up a socialist. Its major goal was to get the federal government to create jobs and to increase the minimum wage.
King’s speech neglected any mention of jobs. It was about justice. It was about liberty. It was about eschatology: his dream of America’s future. It was about the reconciliation of the races, based on a common morality. But he wrapped that common morality in the swaddling clothes of biblical imagery. This strategy had been the heart of his rhetoric from the beginning of his career until the night before he died. On that final night, he cited Moses’ experience on Mount Pisgah, looking over into the promised land. He said he might not cross over into the promised land, just as Moses didn’t. He was murdered the next day.
We still have the minimum wage. We still have high rates of unemployment among black young males, just as we have had since the 1950s, when the minimum wage was first introduced. That never changes, because the economics of the minimum wage never changes. When you make it illegal for black teenage males to compete with whites, they do not get jobs. The government takes away their supreme competitive tactic for jobs: “I’ll work for less. Please give me a chance.”
Within a decade of his speech, the overt racism of the deep South disappeared. Today, there are bi-racial conservative churches in Mississippi and Memphis. I was for years a member of one of them.
The rhetoric of the final third of King’s speech has come down through the decades, not because it was a call for economic intervention by the federal government, but because it was a call for liberty and justice for all, by the grace of God. That rhetoric still persists in America. But it has been co-opted by politicians. The lawyers do their best to re-claim this rhetoric from the pulpit: to reverse what Mahalia Jackson did five decades ago. “Tell us about the dream!”
Jones’ account is detailed, but I think his memory is playing tricks on him. Memories do this all the time.
I had an instant to wonder what was about to take place. Then I watched Martin push the text of his prepared remarks to one side to the lectern. He shifted gears in a heartbeat, abandoning whatever final version of the balance of the text he’d prepared with previous night, turning away from whatever notes he’d scrawled in the margins. Observing this from my perch, I knew he’d just put himself in Mahalia’s hands, giving himself over to the spirit of the moment. That is something a speaker simply cannot know typing away in the quiet hotel suite. It has to be felt right there at the lectern. But by then of course, for most orators, it’s too late.
Not for Martin Luther King, Jr., though.
I leaned over and said to the person standing next to me, “These people out there today don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church.” From his body language and tone in his voice, I knew Martin was about to transform into the superb Baptist preacher he was; like the three generations of Baptist preachers before him in his family. (pp. 112-13).
I think Jones may be right about the sequence of what happened. He was not right about the chronology. Either Mahalia Jackson’s words took time to reach fruition, or else her words were delivered later in that speech — which I prefer to believe. But I am willing to give her credit for those words, because she sent lawyer King into the background, and pulled Rev. King to the podium at last.
In the history of American rhetoric, two speeches measurably changed the nation. One was William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896. The other was “I Have a Dream.” In retrospect, King’s speech marks the transition from the dominance of George Wallace in 1963, to whom he referred briefly in the speech, though not by name, to the repentant George Wallace in 1978, who announced his conversion to Christianity, and who apologized for what he had done. If that is not an answer to prayer, I don’t know what is.
King began his speech as a knock-off of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “Five score years ago. . . .” It would not be remembered today if he had continued his lawyer’s brief. But he didn’t. He turned from calling the federal government to repentance to calling his listeners to faith in God’s providence. He did not end it with “Great Gerrymander, we are free at last.”
©2013 GaryNorth.com, used by permission.