Gary Younge: It’s one of those things that everybody feels they know about, everybody loves, but while they do love it, they don’t really know it. It’s the most admired, least well-known speech I think I’ve ever come across. I mean I’ve been interested in it for a while and each time I’ve come across it throughout the years, I’d think “God, oh really, wow.” Of course, all the drama during the day is incredible.
But also just the way in which it’s been dealt with historically, I find intriguing. It’s become this real brilliant speech, but at the time, what he stood for was controversial — it was not well-liked by a lot of white folks. But leading up to it the march itself was deeply contentious. And as a foreigner, it’s always been intriguing to me the way that America takes these things without evidence of the bad things that have happened. It’s like, this just shows what a fantastic country we are.
AF: What do you think people would be most surprised to learn about the speech? And what were you most surprised to learn during your research?
GY: I think the thing that most people don’t know is the interruption by Mahalia Jackson toward the end [who told King to tell the people about “the dream”]. That people are most surprised that [the “I have a dream” refrain] was extemporaneous. It wasn’t ad libbing given that King said the dream refrain before, many times. But people are most surprised to know that it wasn’t in text. By most accounts he had no intention of giving that refrain when he stepped onto the podium.
The thing that surprised me most when doing the research was just that year. I understood that Birmingham was an important element in the Civil Rights movement. And I understood the chain of events — there was the sit-ins in ’60, the freedom rides in ’61, Birmingham in ’63. I know the dates. But I didn’t realize the magnitude, the pivotal role that Birmingham had, and the degree to which, in that year the mood of the Civil Rights movement’s pace kept moving much faster than the leadership could keep up with. So they were much more impatient, much more militant than most of the Civil Rights leadership gave them credit for. So very quickly, the Civil Rights leaders moved from leaders to following, and they were just running to catch up. So that’s one thing I wasn’t quite aware of.
And the other thing is the speech itself. I haven’t met anyone who knew King who thought that we would still be speaking about it 50 years later. They pretty much admitted, yeah, it was a good speech, he gave a lot of good speeches. It did what it had to do. It crowned the day off well. It was well delivered. But that’s what he did. And everyone’s got another speech that they liked better. And they’re not saying it in that jealous way that people say, “Oh I don’t like that band anymore because everybody else likes it.” They were saying that “No I had no idea that we would be speaking about this speech.”And so the degree to which these things become historical through time — in that moment, people aren’t thinking, ‘Oh wow, that’s it.’ And that the way history kind of sifts through these things with great prejudice and then makes a call. I was surprised by that. I had always assumed that everybody realized right from the get go that he knocked it out of the park.
AF: Through history then, what made it such a great speech? You write that a great speech is “timely and timeless.” What made King’s speech timely and timeless?
GY: The thing that made it timely was he’s speaking to a multiracial crowd — about 20 percent white, 80 percent black — at a pivotal moment. That year begins with George Wallace in Alabama saying, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” And it ends with Kennedy’s assassination. Just a couple weeks later, four little girls are killed in Birmingham. So the speech comes at this pivotal moment. And it does manage to articulate both the utopian hopes and the dystopian reality of that time. People are being whacked to death. People are being tortured, and I mean literally tortured and murdered. And he manages to capture all of that, and he manages to capture and say that there’s a better world out there for us. And to that extent it’s very timely.
And it’s timeless because it speaks to a universal desire for equality, that in the moment spoke to large chunks of Africa and Asia seeking independence and citizenship. But also can speak as well today to the Shia in Bahrain or gypsies in Eastern Europe or native people in South America. I mean there’s no country or culture where this dream can’t apply somehow. And that’s what makes it timeless.
But there are lots of great speeches that are forgotten. To have a sense of what gets it remembered you have to understand what comes next. There’s the Civil Rights Act in ’64, the Voting Rights Act in ’65 and then King moves on to refocus his energies on poverty, and calls for more government intervention to deal with poverty. And he then moves on to the Vietnam War and calls America the greatest purveyor of violence in history. And then he dies. And actually when he dies, he’s not that popular. And so as America casts a way to remember him and that period, they can’t remember him as the guy who campaigns against the Vietnam War and American militarism because that’s still happening. They can’t remember him as a the guy who rallied against poverty and called against government intervention because that’s still going on. But to remember him as that man who articulated that great moment where America decided to get rid of codified segregation, well he articulated that moment like nobody else had, and that’s a very convenient way to remember him.
So part of the reason that the dream is remembered in the way that it is, is because it’s a way Americans can forget the rest of the stuff he said.
AF: What made King such a great speaker? He seems unmatched especially today. Where have all the powerful orators gone?
GY: I think there are good speeches today. But I think his particular speaking style comes out of the church. And the church has a very special role to play in black political life. The preacher would be the one most likely able to read. And the preacher is one of the few in the community that is only reliant on the black community. The preacher would lose his job if black people got upset with him. Unlike the sharecropper and the maid, who could get fired by white people at a moment’s notice. So the preacher and the politician gets mixed into one. Also the preaching style, the African American Baptist preaching style in particular, where a speech is always a work in progress. It is crafted part by the preacher and part by the congregation, where the preacher responds to the congregation and takes cues from them. And the speech is constantly being drafted as it’s being given. This all lends itself very well to this moment and this event. I think he captures that moment terrifically.
Given the age of American politics in this moment, which is nowhere near as radicalized as it was then, we would probably not be looking in this country for great speakers right now. Perhaps in Palestine, or among Spanish and Greek youth, or parts of Egypt. Great oratory is tied to major historical moments.
And I have to say, for all the range of issues I disagree with him, I think Obama is a very good speaker — when it was more about the promise of him than the actual policies or record.
AF: You write that the right has distorted the speech for their own purposes. Can you talk a little bit about this?
GY: In 1966, twice as many people have an unfavorable view of King than a favorable one. When he dies, he’s politically polarizing and marginalized person. And the right tries its best to forget him but they can’t. They can’t denigrate him. As of 1983, Ronald Reagan was suggesting that he might be a Communist. Jesse Helms is disparaging his record. But King wins through. Only Mother Theresa is a more popular figure in the 20th century. And so the right has to remember him, though they viciously opposed everything he did.
But they remember him by distorting his record in general and his speech in particular, and they remember him through his speech. They take one line: “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.”
And they take that to represent an entire philosophy. As though the dream speech and King’s agenda was an appeal to color blindness. And the legacy of racism is ignored, as if to say, ‘Okay we’re done now, segregation is over that means racism is finished and to take race into account would be itself racist.’ So even though he was a proponent of affirmative action, they use it to suggest that he wasn’t. And they bring it up every time they want to say, ‘Let’s not take race into account, we’re all the same.’ Of course, it wasn’t an appeal to ignore racism, it was an appeal to address it. What he was saying was ‘I dream about a day when this is possible,’ but we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot.
AF: You also discuss in the last chapter how racism has taken new forms today, and how while things have changed many remain the same. You say that under Obama, “Black Americans may feel better, but they are faring worse.” Then we just recently had the Zimmerman verdict.
Do you think it will only get worse? Or does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice? Are people organized and outraged enough today to take on something so ingrained in our society?
GY: Well, I don’t think it necessarily gets worse, and I don’t think it necessarily gets better — I think it depends on us. Clearly, they aren’t organized in the same way that they were, and one wouldn’t expect them to be. And however we fight racism today will take on a very different form. I mean, for a start the duality of black and white is redundant now with the large numbers of Latinos that you couldn’t build a progressive movement without.
I do think there’s a hopelessness about the progressive movement, which is not just related to race and that creates problems. In the same way that Occupy Wall Street emerged and then dissipated. And then you have a few more movements — the immigrant rights movement. I mean over the past ten years there’s been these eruptions of popular discontent that kind of dies away, only to be replaced by another. Sometimes its the same people, sometimes not. But the nature of the beast that we’re working with, these things usually have very unclear demands and just end up being a kind of an expression of general discontent. And I think that’s where we are.
If you ask 10 different people what they wanted from the Zimmerman verdict, you would probably get about five different answers. They’d talk about Stand Your Ground, or the influence of ALEC and money in politics, or stop-and-frisk. Unlike 60 years ago, there isn’t a unified goal, like theirs was of getting rid of codified segregation. And even if there were a number of organizations back then, there isn’t a single movement that there was. And so the energy kind of bobs around, and we haven’t found a way to harness and direct it to some viable, attainable target.
AF: You briefly discuss in your conclusion the idealism infused in King’s speech. You write, “he showed that it is not naïve to believe that what is not possible in the foreseeable future may nonetheless be necessary, worth fighting for and worth articulating.”
Do you think it’s important people dream today, and how can they find the inspiration to dream if they are living in such a nightmare?
GY: I mean you wouldn’t want people dreaming all the time. They have to be awake. But the idea that there is a better world that is possible and that we have a vision of what that kind of world is so we’re not always discussing things on other people’s terms, I think is very, very important. It’s the means by which great things happen. And by the way, the right wing is doing that, too. Arguably, they’ve been constantly more successful in achieving some things we’d once thought: ‘You’d never get away with that.’
But for the left, who would have thought 10 years ago that gay marriage would be in the place it was now, let alone 30 years ago? Who would have thought 100 years ago that gender equality would be where it is now?
None of that means that these things have arrived. But it does mean to be bound only by what you can see, rather than what is the world that you might envision, is very limiting. And so I think it’s crucial. If you look at something like gay rights, and where we were 50 years ago and then where we are now, then imagine where we might in 50 years time for something else.
And so I think the utopian is crucial. And we have much too often denied it as being impractical, when what is practical and achievable sometimes in a given moment is actually not necessarily great.
AF: Is there anything else our readers should know about King or his speech?
GY: Only that, if they get a chance, they should try to listen to the speech. Usually what they have seen is 20-second clips. People think they know it, and they don’t actually. They may have heard it all the way through once. Something like 90 percent of Americans say they know it. I’m sure they’re not lying. It just happens to be not true. The speech has gained the kind of familiarity that belies what people really know about the speech. So I would say to your readers, just take 15 minutes and listen to it. It’s worth it.