The right distorts Martin Luther King Jr.

The author of a new book on Dr. King's historic "dream" speech explains, in part, how it's misread by conservatives

Topics: AlterNet, Martin Luther King, "I Have a Dream", Race Relations, Trayvon Martin, Civil Rights, ,

The right distorts Martin Luther King Jr.Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington, D.C. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This article originally appeared on Alternet.

AlterNet

Editor’s Note: The following is a Q&A with Gary Younge, author of “The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream.” The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream speech” is on Aug. 28, 2013. Numerous events will be taking place across the country, including a major event this Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington with special emphasis on combating “stand your ground” and racial profiling.

Alyssa Figueroa: What inspired you to write the book?

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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...