From The Archives -- King's Eloquence Goes Far Beyond "I Have A Dream"

[ Posted Thursday, August 22nd, 2013 – 16:02 UTC ]

[Program Note: As we approach next week's semicentennial of the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," I thought it was a good time to run this column again. I wrote it two years ago, for the planned dedication of the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington (the actual dedication had to be delayed due to the threat of a hurricane). What I didn't know when I wrote this was that the memorial itself pretty much proved my thesis -- that King's actual words, in all their context, were being edited down to simplistic and more-comfortable snippets, which robs his words of a great deal of their meaning and virtually all of his eloquence. One of the King quotes chosen to be carved in stone was horribly truncated, which made it sound like King was saying the opposite of the idea he was trying to impart. This grave error (engraved error? graven error?) has now been rectified on the memorial, thanks to the righteousness of a journalist who pointed it out and the many who would not accept such ham-handed soundbitery. Next week is the fiftieth anniversary of the most famous speech King gave, the "I Have A Dream" speech orated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Which makes it timely indeed to reflect on King's unexpurgated and unbowdlerized message.]


Originally published August 26, 2011

A new statue of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior is about to be dedicated in Washington; as a memorial to the man, his life's work, his commitment to non-violence, and the words he used to so eloquently define the struggle against injustice millions of Americans used to face every single day. The ceremony has been delayed, due to the threat of a hurricane hitting the D.C. area this weekend, but it was originally scheduled to mark the 48th anniversary of his most famous speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

This speech will forever be known as his "I Have A Dream" speech, and portions of it are as familiar to every American as F.D.R.'s "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," J.F.K.'s "Ask not what your country can do for you," and even Abraham Lincoln's immortal "Government of the people, by the people, for the people" address on the hallowed battlefields of Gettysburg.

This is all as it should be. It's a powerful speech, after all. But Dr. King's legacy is a lot deeper than two or three heavily-edited clips from one speech. By now, we've all seen video of the following lines, many times over:

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 my four 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.

. . .

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

. . .

"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

But how many of us would recognize the parts which are always left out? The media will likely play those clips over and over this weekend (and when the new monument is actually dedicated), but will any of them go beyond these well-known snippets of Dr. King's speech? Because while the best-known parts of "I Have A Dream" are now ubiquitous in popular culture, they have entered into a sort of hazy and comfortable familiarity, which allows everyone to view them without being challenged by the more pointed things Dr. King had to say that day. Here is the whole end of Dr. King's Lincoln Memorial speech, complete with very sharp words for the specific injustices against which Dr. King was fighting:

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

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 slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four 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.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

It's a pretty safe bet that large portions of this will not be aired on television as America celebrates its newest monument in our nation's capital. Especially the bits about injustice, oppression, and police brutality -- all of which will likely end up on the cutting room floor. We'll all get to hear the parts we're already familiar with, once again, but we simply will not be challenged by the stark truth of what Dr. King faced, and what he struggled against his entire life. After all, it might tend to upset some viewers.

This is a shame. Both in the "Oh, that's a shame" sense, and in the literal meaning of the word "shame." Because bowdlerizing and sanitizing Dr. King means that generations of young Americans will only ever hear the gauzy, lofty, uplifting parts of what he was saying -- and they'll be denied the historical knowledge of the other things Dr. King said those many years ago.

For instance, how many of Barack Obama's young supporters are aware that the following line is from that same speech?

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.

Dr. King spoke unhesitatingly of this "fierce urgency of now" many times in his speeches. He knew that every time he spoke, he did so in fear of his life. This was tragically made obvious when an assassin's bullet later cut him down. But this did not stop Dr. King from coming out against the Vietnam War, and railing against the same "conformist thought" that now pares his legacy down to one moving speech about a dream of a brighter future for children. Dr. King did not mince words on this subject, in another famous speech, as indeed he never did on anything he felt strongly about. After quoting the committee which had invited him to speak ("A time comes when silence is betrayal"), he went on to say:

The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.

. . .

If we continue [the war], there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.

Dr. King spoke on many subjects, involving many issues from the intensely local to the moralities of the entire human race. Being an ordained man of God, he not only spoke, he preached. His prose soared, no matter what the occasion. But his main theme is perhaps best remembered in a speech he gave on loving your enemies. In it, he relates the following story:

I think I mentioned before that some time ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn't dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A.D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: "I know what I'm going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I'm going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power." And I looked at him right quick and said: "Oh no, don't do that. There'd be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway."

Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn't it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves in the junkheap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have sense enough to dim the lights. And if somebody doesn't have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history. Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.

It is somewhat fitting that the dedication of Dr. King's memorial has been postponed by a hurricane. Dr. King himself was a hurricane-force wind which blew through American society and ripped open a lot of things which should have been torn down long before. He spoke of the force of God, and he was a force for good his entire life. In his wake, he left not devastation but people rebuilding from a stronger and better foundation for the future.

Dr. King's monument is a literal interpretation of the faith he spoke of on the Lincoln Memorial's steps. We have now managed to "hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope" in his very likeness. But as you watch the images of the dedication ceremony, it would behoove you to go online and find the text of other speeches than just the most familiar one we're all used to seeing in those clips. If you read no other, look up his last address, which is so eerily prophetic that it too may even merit a tiny clip on television. He gave the speech in Memphis, just before he was shot. Dr. King was appearing in Memphis in support of sanitation workers who were struggling for a little dignity. But, after addressing the local issue, he ends this speech by talking about his own mortality -- how he was almost assassinated by a deranged individual with a knife, and how the plane he rode to Memphis on had to be thoroughly checked for explosives or sabotage. Dr. King ends with one of the most moving passages he's ever spoken:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!

As we all know, we're not there yet. We're a little closer than we were when Dr. King was taken from us, but we've still got quite a ways to go yet. For inspiration on the journey which still awaits us all, I strongly urge all Americans to seek out Dr. King's actual words -- the words you're not used to hearing over and over again. Take ten or fifteen minutes and read the text of one of his speeches. Watch video, or listen to audio of Dr. King speaking. It will be well worth the time it takes.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


4 Comments on “From The Archives -- King's Eloquence Goes Far Beyond "I Have A Dream"”

  1. [1] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    To All -

    Once again, I've been woefully lax in answering comments for the past week or so. Mea culpa, and I will spend the next few hours going over the past week and adding comments, so check it out...

    In particular, I'd like to apologize to gregnh for the delay in posting his first comment here. See my response for a welcome to the site...


  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Update -

    OK, I've made it back through Monday's column, answering comments as I go.

    I have to recommend the comment thread from Monday to everyone, as it is one of the best I've read in a while. On a subject as touchy as the Middle East, it was so much nicer to read than some of the reponses the article got on HuffPost, so huzzahs to all the fine Monday commenters here!



  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Personally, for me..

    Given the context of the here and now and current events....

    I have a dream that my four 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.

    ..... THAT right there is the most important and apropos statement of Dr King's entire speech..

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:


    As an aside, I followed up on your comment here..

    Not sure if you follow up on your follow ups, but I think you'll get a kick out of it. :D

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