While this website highlights Canadian speeches and rhetoric, this posting commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of history’s great orators, who was murdered fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968. King was the son of an American Baptist minister and he, too, became a minister in Montgomery, Alabama. Inspired by Scripture and Mahatma Gandhi, King used non-violent civil disobedience to gain civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s. He faced daunting challenges: he was loathed by Southern whites and conservatives everywhere and spied upon by the FBI. King was also criticized by some black militants who believed that his commitment to non-violence was naïve and unproductive.
King as preacher
King was facing all of those pressures as he was involved, with others, in planning the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. It was attended by 250,000 people, including an estimated 60,000 whites. King was the last of 10 speakers and he talked for just over 17 minutes. He had help from others in drafting his remarks but King had been so consumed with preparations for the march that he left his final draft until the last minute. It contained no reference to his having a dream.
He was both a political and religious figure but King was, above all, a preacher and his speech in Washington became a sermon to the nation. He stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a site rife with meaning for African Americans.
King began with an indirect reference to Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation which the president had signed in 1863. “It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity,” King said in an allusion to Psalm 30 in the Bible. “It was a great beacon of hope,” he added, but that covenant had been broken.
“One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination . . . and so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
King began his speech in a slow and measured way. There had been tense negotiations prior to the event. President John Kennedy was concerned that if it was too angry or became violent his plans to introduce civil rights legislation might be derailed. King and the others promised that they would keep their speeches calm and the event peaceful, but he picked up his tempo and inserted a note of urgency. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy . . . now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
About the dream
The speech would have been a good one had King stayed with his prepared text, but it became a great one when he departed from it. One of the audience members was entertainer Mahalia Jackson who had sung for the crowd. At one point during his speech she called out to King asking that he tell the audience “about the dream.” It was common in black churches for members of a congregation to participate in a sermon by sharing a “that’s right” or “Amen.” It is not clear whether King actually heard Jackson, but he was familiar with such a call-out.
King began to improvise and it is clear from the television footage that he was no longer looking at his prepared text. He had delivered a version of the dream speech on numerous other occasions but none as prominent as this. He began to describe a land of slavery and hatred (the broken covenant) which must be replaced by freedom and equality (the promised covenant). He used the rhetorical device of anaphora, the repetition of a phrase at the beginning of succeeding sentences. When one views a transcript of the speech, these phrases appear unduly repetitive on the page, but King’s demeanour, tone and cadence were such that it was mesmerizing:
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!
Let freedom ring
King’s entire speech, including this portion, was rich with metaphor and allusion to both religious and secular sources. He ended with a series of 10 more repetitions, including these:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring . . .
After this climax, King ended the speech with reference to an old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
This great speech improved the chances for Kennedy’s civil rights bill to pass. Tragically, the president was assassinated just a few months later and it was left to his successor Lyndon Johnson to pass the Civil rights Act in 1964. In the wake of King’s speech, TIME magazine named him Man of the Year for 1963, and in 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Those honours did not make him unassailable, but may rather have left him more vulnerable to hatred and conspiracy. On the evening April 4, 1968 he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee – but his legacy and his dream speech live on.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons