Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Liberal Wednesday 6: Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” #LibDemValues

This week’s Liberal Monday is on a Wednesday: the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most celebrated speeches of the Twentieth Century. Dr Martin Luther King Jnr’s speech to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom still has tremendous power both for in itself and for its place in history – the right person, at the right time and place, with more than the right moral clarion call in its inspired oratory. The BBC marked the occasion with a tribute on Radio 4 at 9am, plus a documentary to come on BBC2 at 9 tonight.
“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!”
What is there to be said of this great appeal for equality, justice and fellowship that hasn’t already been said? Well, there’s this morning’s tribute, for a start. I was a little sceptical of Radio 4’s I Have a Dream this morning – reminiscent of the BBC’s 1997 recording of Perfect Day, the main part of the programme was a ‘cover version’ of the speech performed by a wide array of different people from different countries. It seemed like a bit of a gimmick. But on listening to the collage, ranging from John Lewis and Joan Baez, who were both part of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom that day, to the Dalai Lama, to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani student shot by the Taliban for being a girl who went to school, I found it incredibly moving. With a full speech, the reading doesn’t just switch reader on every line, instead segueing between Dr King and impassioned stretches by so many other people it had touched with enough time for each different person to get a sense of how much it means to each of them. And unlike the original line-up of speakers after the 1963 March, this version of the rally’s showstopping final number has women in it, without which it would seem odd today but shows that not only racial attitudes have changed in the last half-century. It’s repeated on the World Service at 3.30 this afternoon and on Radio 4 this Sunday at 1.30pm.

You can also listen to the programme for the next week on BBC iPlayer here; you can read about it and the many contributors here; you can read the text of the speech here; and, above all of those, you can watch Martin Luther King delivering the original speech here.

I’d heard the whole speech before, though much more often excerpts from it – most of all, the extraordinary “I have a dream” peroration of the second half that echoes down the decades. But listening to it fresh this morning, without the thrilling cadences of Dr King whose voice gave perhaps the greatest speech I’ve ever heard, though the multiple performance had much less power than the original, it made me concentrate more on the words.

The speech itself is fascinatingly constructed, an appeal to America’s history and heartstrings with astonishing moral force. I think of the passion, the imagery, the repeated refrains, but it’s far more than that. The speech comes to us now with the power of fifty years of Dr King being proven right and becoming a lasting symbol on its side, but in itself it cascades back through history.

Dr King stood at the Lincoln Memorial and made his own and the marchers’ demand for the fulfilment of Lincoln’s promise an integral part of President Lincoln’s own history; I remember going to Washington in my twenties and wanting to visit that Memorial as soon as I could, looking up at the great graven face of Lincoln but seeing and hearing King in my head. And his speech grounds itself firmly on Lincoln’s own promise, deliberately opening between the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the hundredth anniversary of the Gettysburg Address with a championing of one and the echo of the other: “Five score years ago…” Dr King samples Shakespeare, economics, current affairs and a host of other touchstones, but in speaking for a new America rising irresistibly on the deepest feelings of the old, there’s no mistaking the other great stream pouring through the speech – religion. It’s not just in the words, testifying to the equality of all God’s children, but coming through his own preacher’s experience and oratorical style. The American Dream is only real for any American if it’s shared by all Americans, and that’s because God created all equal. And in that shared language, he was speaking to many who wouldn’t otherwise want to hear him.

For me the most fascinating thing about the speech from my own experience of watching and making a great many different speeches is how it’s essentially two speeches, Dr King’s extraordinary gift making them appear seamless. I know that my own best speeches have been ones delivered without a prepared text, but my worst ones, too: it’s a risk to try to fly. What he does here is start in the safer, meticulously prepared style as a run-up, then suddenly lifts off. There’s the carefully crafted written word fixed in American history, a reasoned argument. And then, apparently spurred by Mahalia Jackson’s cry of “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” he switches from his written text into the part that everyone remembers: the repeated rhetoric beamed straight into the heart through Biblical words and a million-watt charisma, every phrase resonating with the American Dream and with the Gospel call. And that, clearly, is the powerful spiritual appeal of the preacher.

That’s not to say that the “I have a dream / Let freedom ring” extended climax was entirely off-the-cuff. Dr King had had three years of honing that exact metaphor, from his 1960 speech “The Negro and the American Dream” onwards, but clearly it was on the day that it was most needed that suddenly the theme came together and, inspired and inspiring, helped transform America.

There’s much more to the speech – embracing both the more timorous and the more militant sides of the Civil Rights movement, the uncompromising demand to make brotherhood a reality, passing sometimes shocking judgement on the segregationists and the shameful, but then not just rising but soaring above them, preaching against hate, the realisation on his part and on “our white brothers’” part that “their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom”. But I still get teary-eyed reading or watching it for myself, so watching or reading it for yourself is going to have much more of an impact than reading about it.

It’s a sign of how far things have come that under the institutional bigotry of the times, in 1963 twenty-one US States prohibited mixed-race marriage. That’s almost impossible to believe, fifty years later, when Martin Luther King’s speech has become one of America’s great moral foundations. Today, thirty-seven US States prohibit same-sex marriage. I wonder whose soaring rhetoric will transform the next fifty years?

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Fascinating further reading: the out gay activist behind the March who many 'supporters' tried to airbrush.
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