|Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, August 28 1963.
AUGUST 29 2013 UPDATE:
Today in the States marks 50 years since one of history’s most famous speeches, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream. Delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on August 28th 1963, the “I Have A Dream” refrain is repeated eight times in the middle of a speech which neither begins nor ends with the phrase. But the power of that ad-libbed repetition; of lines like, “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 at the table of brotherhood,” is such that much of the rest of the speech gets overlooked.
Spurred on gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who was heard saying, “Tell them about your dream Martin,” King abandons his script at around the 12 minute mark and for the final five minutes ad-libs his way into immortality. It’s only when you go back and watch the speech and see King’s eyes and body language that you realise the very verses that have made this speech what it is were unplanned.
It also strikes me that King ends both I Have A Dream and the almost as famous Mountaintop speech (1968) with quotes from hymns. In I Have A Dream* it is, “free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last,” while the latter ends with, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”**
The Mountaintop speech is almost as meaningful for many because it was delivered the night before King was assassinated and seemed to foreshadow that his would not be a long life. It still chills me. As for I Have A Dream, its unifying words drew from Lincoln, Gandhi and the Bible had the rhythm of music. Perhaps fittingly it was a white man with a black voice who took the message to the charts later that decade after King’s death. Here is the Elvis Presley song If I Can Dream to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s dream:
*Free At Last is (as described by Dr. King) an “old Negro spiritual.”
**”Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” is a line from the Julia Ward Howe hymn The Battle Of The Republic.