Today is the official U.S. celebration of Martin Luther King day. Every child in the States older than four can hear Dr. King’s "I have a dream" speech ring in their ears when his name comes up, so this might be a good day to look at Dr. King’s message–not only its content, which virtually every civilized person today agrees with, but how it was delivered.
"I have a dream" was a tipping point. King and thousands of others in the civil rights movement had been working tirelessly for years to fight for a federal civil rights act, and for legal equality and social dignity for all people, without regard to the color of their skin. But as a Kennedy administration official mentioned in a radio interview today, this August, 1963 speech was the moment when Martin Luther King took his place not as a black leader but as a world leader.
It’s very hard to remember now that they didn’t know they were going to win. For years, civil rights and the defeat of Jim Crow looked like impossible dreams. To say that changing entrenched thinking, replacing an ugly false story with the true one, was an uphill battle is like saying that Everest is a damn steep hill.
Breaking down the dream
"I have a dream" is the work of one of the most powerful and effective communicators of his generation. Read the speech yourself and see if it doesn’t give you chills. (Copyblogger posted a long exerpt today without comment, a classy move that I should have had the sense to emulate.)
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 together at the table of brotherhood.
The speech is, of course, the work of a dedicated, talented and inspired writer, and there’s no simple technique that can be copied. But for a communicator, it’s still worth studying. As a writer, you can’t replicate the beautiful cadence (although you can try to be aware of the rhythms of your own writing, and make them more lovely), but there are things that you can learn from.
The word that makes that sentence remarkable is probably "red." That concrete, simple descriptor puts the scene in the mind of the audience. Those who have been to Georgia will say, "yes, the hills are red." The picture becomes real. And even for people from Singapore or Paris or Australia who have never been to Georgia, there is a second echo–the sense of a red, bloody battleground today contrasted with the simple, peaceful table of brotherhood tomorrow.
There is a nice sense, too, of ordinariness about the "table of brotherhood." Most of us sit down every day at tables with intimates and friends. It is not extraordinary. We give little thought to the grandparents or great-grandparents of who sits at that table. This simple sentence takes something that was at the time difficult to picture and makes it easy, normal and natural.
A few sentences later, Dr. King says:
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. . . . one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."
After he has introduced this quiet, simple idea to you–black and white sitting down in brotherhood–he raises the stakes by bringing children into the equation. The most rigid stereotypes usually soften a little when we think about small children. However tightly we define our own tribe, however fiercely we hate the other side, there’s usually a tiny bit of room in our thinking to adopt a child from the other. Dr. King sends his own small children as emissaries to the hearts of his audience.
Having built this strong foundation on the personal, King takes the argument to the divine:
. . . 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.
Just a few moments later the speech climbs to its climax, one of the best uses of repetition in the history of public discourse, the "freedom ring" sequence.
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 slopes 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 molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
If this doesn’t make all the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you might be dead. Supported by Dr. King’s tremendous speaking voice, the repetition and clarity of this message transported the audience of 250,000–including the presidential administration–to readiness for the final, triumphant conclusion:
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to 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!”
The dream today
We seem very far from Dr. King’s dream today, but that is because we forget how impossible that dream looked when he spoke those words. Even Martin Luther King, with his vast optimism and clarity of purpose, could not have imagined how quickly we would make important strides.
Like the old carpenter’s joke about building a house, the first 90% takes 90% of the time, and the last 10% takes the other 90% of the time. Today is a good day to celebrate how far we have come, and to give some serious reflection to how we can complete the work. We all know this is not just an American problem or an American dream. You can work for justice from anywhere.
And pencil in some time tomorrow to think about your own dream. Maybe you’re ignited by a great and noble dream like Dr. King’s, or maybe yours is a little smaller. Either way is ok. Think about what you can create to share that dream, to make it real for someone else, to give the dream a life of its own that can survive you.
If you happen to use his construction of comfortable abstraction to personalization to a stirring global vision, you’ll be honoring his memory in a small way. Not a bad thing at all.
- I Have a Dream (full text).
- Dr. King’s biography on www.nobelprize.org. Dr. King was, at 35, the youngest man to have won a Nobel Peace Prize.
- The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, which includes a selection of audio clips in MP3 format.
- The birth home of Martin Luther King, Jr. (now managed by the national park system).