King, Obama, And The Great American Dialogue

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Standing in the cold with 2 million others near the Capitol as Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address, I couldn’t help but recall another crowded day 45 years earlier, when I heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” oration at the other end of the National Mall, in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

A 19-year-old college student at the time, I was moved by his words but had no idea that his speech would soon rank as one of the greatest oratories in American history. My view of King and his rhetoric would be profoundly affected in unexpected ways by the changes the march had set in motion. I wondered how Obama’s speech might affect the lives of the many young people that I saw in the crowd at the Capitol but appreciated how difficult it is to predict the enduring impact of even the most moving oratory Nonetheless, my study of King, especially since becoming editor of his papers, has convinced me that King’s and Obama’s distinctive oratorical qualities are related in important ways. Indeed, the new president seems to personify King’s dream that his children would live in a nation capable of judging people on the basis of character rather than skin color.

In 1963 King’s dream seemed a fantasy. The continuing reality of racial discrimination and segregation made me dubious about King’s visionary rhetoric, his faith in American ideals, and his mode of charismatic leadership. King critics such as Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, and other organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had convinced me that black advancement would come not through the guidance of national civil rights leaders such as King but through militant grassroots activism. The landmark civil rights legislation that followed the march failed to transform Mississippi “into an oasis of freedom and justice,” as King had envisioned. During the era of Black Power and the Black Arts Movement, the idea that Americans of all races one day would join hands and sing, “Free at last, free at last,” seemed far-fetched. Malcolm X and the Black Power firebrands pushed King from prominence as they revived an alternative black nationalist oratorical tradition that offered a compelling explanation of the escalating racial violence and police repression of the late 1960s. During the last year of his life, King himself spoke of his dream turning into a nightmare; in his 1967 antiwar speech at New York’s Riverside Church, he labeled the American government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

As black militancy and white repression spawned ever more deadly violence during the late 1960s and early 1970s, I gradually came to understand the wisdom of King’s message of nonviolence and reconciliation. Although I remained skeptical of the notion that great oratory in itself could change the course of history I began to see that King understood the radical potential of the traditional religious and political ideals that many Americans shared and that his commitment to social justice was at least as firm as that of his black critics. While I regretted that King’s provocative speeches of his last years earned little of the attention lavished on the final passages of his “Dream” oration, I did see that King’s vision of a transformed nation was, for Americans of all races, “deeply rooted in the American dream.”

The genius of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech lay not in his originality but in the way he expressed ideas better than those from whom he borrowed.

Especially after 1985, when Coretta Scott King asked me to direct the King Papers Project (now part of Stanford’s King Institute), I began to see the speech not as an isolated instance of skilled oratory, but rather as a remarkably cogent contribution to a continuing dialogue about America’s destiny King spoke not only to those gathered but also to “the architects of our republic” who had written “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” and thereby signed “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

Of all of King’s many speeches, the address at the March on Washington best represented the transformative ability of oratory to infuse familiar ideas with new meanings. In his 16-minute speech, King linked the aspirations of African Americans to the widely shared but unrealized ideals of the American republic. Although he prepared much of the speech in the days preceding the march, he impulsively extended his remarks to incorporate ideas drawn from almost two centuries of American black-white relations, hearkening back to Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers who spoke of “inalienable rights” while holding slaves. King’s concluding evocation of his dream was extemporaneous, but he had been preparing these remarks for most of his adult life.