Dr. King's speech revered, but call for action is lost

Critique of wrongs in `I Have a Dream' often overlooked

January 14, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

For many Americans, the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. can be summed up in four words.

When King stepped to the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a sweltering August afternoon in 1963 as the final speaker of the March on Washington and thundered "I have a dream!" he articulated for the country a vision of what America was not, but could and should become.

In the nearly four decades since he delivered it, King's speech about a utopia of justice and racial equality, 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," has been elevated to a cultural touchstone.

It is an indispensable part of social studies lessons and King Day assemblies of the nation's schoolchildren. It is part of the standard repertoire for speech and rhetoric professors, many of whom rank it as the greatest political address of the 20th century. Preachers use it to exemplify the best of their art.

"It's probably the greatest civic sermon preached in American history, certainly in the 20th century," said the Rev. Richard Lischer, a Lutheran minister and professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C., who in 1995 wrote "The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Word That Moved America."

But some say that in achieving such universal acclaim, King and his piercing social cri- tique have been blunted.

"King has certainly been sanitized and domesticated and therefore distorted," said the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, the newly elected pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church in West Baltimore, who plans to preach on King's message this morning. "Selected sound bites are played and become part of the public memory of King. So people whose ideological orientation is clearly antithetical to that of King can mouth pious platitudes in honor of King while arguing for policies King would never have supported."

Words from the heart

King, who would fall to an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968, delivered his famous speech at the March on Washington, a rally that mobilized African-Americans and civil rights activists from across the country. The event is remembered as an uplifting moment in the nation's history, but the atmosphere that day was tense because many in Washington were convinced the gathering would result in a riot.

"In Washington, authorities from all sectors guarded against the possibility that marauding Negroes might sack the capital like Moors or Visigoths reincarnate," wrote Taylor Branch in "Parting the Waters," the first volume, published in 1988, of his King trilogy. Branch noted that liquor sales there were banned for the first time since Prohibition, hospitals canceled elective surgery, and the Washington Senators baseball team postponed games for two days.

King, who worked on the draft of the history-making speech the night before at the Willard Hotel, had been limited to seven minutes by march organizers, as had all speakers, and wrote what would become merely the first part of his address.

In it, he spoke of a promissory note by the nation's founding fathers guaranteeing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a note that to the nation's blacks was "a bad check that has come back marked `insufficient funds.'"

Coming to the end of his prepared text, overwhelmed by the moment and the response of the crowd, King began to preach. He told the crowd, "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 be changed."

And then, continuing his improvisation, he began the refrain that still echoes in the ears of a nation: "I have a dream ..."

By the end of the 16-minute address, King had moved the world.

"It was electrifying," recalled the Rev. Marion Bascom, a civil rights veteran and director of the Morgan Christian Center, who was among the crowd of 200,000 that day along with other Baltimore pastors. "He was putting into intellectual focus the highest and the noblest of the American tradition. And in that, he was also pulling together the accumulated hopes and dreams of every civilized people."

In fact, King had previously used the "I have a dream" theme.

"It was a stump speech. He'd given it before," said Warnock, who wrote a thesis on King. "But that day, it connected in an especially kind of visceral way."

As King finished, a young man standing to King's left, who was serving as volunteer security for the event, approached him.

"I said, `Dr. King, could I have that copy?'" recalled George Raveling, who became basketball coach at the University of Iowa and the University of Southern California. "And he turned and handed it to me."

"I still didn't realize what I had," Raveling said. "Obviously everyone was overwhelmed with the speech. But I still never realized it was going to take on that kind of historical significance."

But Raveling kept the speech and will pass it on to his son.

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