On this day in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave what is widely hailed as the best political speech of the twentieth century. King famously departed from his prepared text to expound upon his dream, a vision of a nation living in racial harmony. Folk history has it that Mahalia Jackson, a singer and activist, prompted the improvisation by calling out “Tell ’em about the dream Martin!” What followed has become so deeply ingrained in our national consciousness that we might imagine its message to be as clear and obvious as it is powerful and resonant. King’s Dream by Eric J. Sundquist shows how complex and open to interpretation King’s words were and are.
In the decades after King’s death, liberals and conservatives have both gestured towards King to support their stances on affirmative action and reparations for slavery. Apple Computer, the New Republic, and many others have advertised using imagery that evokes the “I Have a Dream” speech. It is at least partially in response to these reductive (and sometimes contradictory) political and popular appropriations that Sundquist gives a fuller and more nuanced sense of the man and his most famous speech.
Sundquist supplies useful context through his account of King’s work in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. The successes and struggles of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sit-ins, in Nashville and elsewhere, the Freedom Rides, and the especially controversial Birmingham campaign all played into the hopes and fears surrounding the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the occasion for King’s speech. King addresses himself not only to segregationists but to Alabama Governor George Wallace, and, implicitly, to those within the movement who doubted the power of nonviolent protest.
King’s Dream also emphasizes two key American texts that preceded the “I Have a Dream” speech. Sundquist shows how King positioned himself in conversation with Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, the writers of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence. The 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech calls for the promise of Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation to be fulfilled, and for the nation to “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.’” Through analysis along these lines, Sundquist arrives at one of his core interpretive claims. He writes:
King’s greatness, as well as the greatness of his speech, lay in his ability to elevate the cause of civil rights and the cause of America at the same time. The nation had failed black Americans, no doubt, but it was not—contrary to the opinions of some raising the fist of Black Power—irredeemably corrupt and ripe for overthrow. Enlisting his audience in a crusade sanctioned equally by the Declaration of Independence and the Bible, King in no way rejected America’s foundational values. Rather, he purified and consolidated those values by insisting that only when the revolutionary rights they guaranteed were shared by Americans of all colors, creeds, and nationalities would they truly be America’s foundational values.
Sundquist addresses the anniversary of King’s speech most directly, but three other authors also critically consider “the cause of civil rights and the cause of America at the same time.” In We Shall Overcome, Alexander Tsesis traces the history of legal efforts to achieve civil rights for all Americans, beginning with the years leading up to the Revolution and continuing to our own times. Tsesis also argues, in opposition to other legal theorists, that the Constitution fundamentally requires the U.S. government to defend individual liberties for the benefit of general welfare.
Lewis Perry writes from a similarly broad perspective in his book, Civil Disobedience. He considers the history of nonviolent protest and the ways it has been and become an American institution. Perry attends to the subtleties of King’s position, noting that although he eventually abandoned the practice, King carried a pistol for a time and publicly conceded the right to defend home and family.
In Protest at Selma, David J. Garrow closely examines how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came into being. He emphasizes how crucial it was that Martin Luther King Jr. learned to exploit the media, an influential third-party audience. By shifting focus from nonviolent persuasion, intended to win over attackers, to nonviolent provocation, intended to win over the media and its audience, King was able to make dramatic progress.
Each of these books helps us understand the magic of the “I Have a Dream” speech and the courage of the Civil Rights Movement. They consider, sometimes critically, what it meant to be an American fifty years ago and what it means to be an American today. They ask us to look carefully at our laws and culture and they assure us that we need not be satisfied with the status quo. Sundquist, Tsesis, Perry, and Garrow insist that we treat this anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on the complexity of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, and their books remind us to live deliberately so that the nation may honor its promises and fulfill the true meaning of its creed.