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King, Obama, And The Great American Dialogue
What would Martin Luther King Jr.—had he been alive today—thought of our latest president’s oratory?
Spring 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 1
Like many 19th-century orators who often borrowed from one another, King adopted his conclusion from Chicago preacher Archibald Carey’s address at the 1952 Republican convention, who in turn adapted the patriotic song, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” As he reached his climax, Carey had exhorted “from every mountain side, let freedom ring. Not only from the Green Mountains and the White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire; not only from the Catskills of New York; but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, from the Great Smokies of Tennessee and from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.”
By the time King spoke in St. Louis in 1957, Carey’s refrain had become part of his vast memorized oratorical repertory: “As I heard a great orator say some time ago,” King remarked, “freedom must ring from every mountainside.” Continually improving on Carey’s use of the mountain metaphor, King was ready at the 1963 March to supplement his dream by drawing upon a key element of the nation’s heritage. “From every mountain side, let freedom ring,” King said, before moving to his powerful conclusion: “And when this happens . . . we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children ... 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 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. In turn his words have informed the oratory of subsequent generations of American political leaders. Only two years old when King delivered his speech at the Washington march, Obama has often acknowledged that King inspired him. In his autobiography, he recalled his mother exposing him to “the speeches of Dr. King.” Later, as a senator, he would sometimes visit the Lincoln Memorial and “look out over the Reflecting Pool, imagining the crowd stilled by Dr. King’s mighty cadence.”
Obama has also felt the pull of African American politicians such as Andrew Young, John Lewis, and Jesse Jackson—King associates who launched successful political careers during a conservative political era by adapting King’s idealism and appealing to white as well as black voters. While Obama has distanced himself from Jackson—and to a lesser extent from other nationally prominent black politicians whose worldviews were shaped by the mass protests against the Jim Crow system—it was Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns that demonstrated the effectiveness of moving beyond calls for black mobilization toward appeals that would resonate with a substantial minority of white voters. I stood behind Jackson when he voiced his stunning evocation of the American “rainbow” at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco: “Our flag is red, white, and blue, but our nation is a rainbow—red, yellow, brown, black, and white—and we’re all precious in God’s sight.” Jackson’s presidential candidacy was undermined by concerns about his links to Louis Farrakhan, but 20 years later Obama would burst onto the national political scene with a similar transracial appeal at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston: “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America,” he said.
Jackson’s speech, which set the stage for his even more successful 1988 presidential campaign, was a precursor for Obama’s “race speech,” which he delivered in Philadelphia in March 2008 to defuse the controversy over the inflammatory sermons of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Although Obama’s speech in Philadelphia elicited far less immediate enthusiasm than his later acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, it may well be remembered as his most original, provocative, and consequential pre-presidential speech. It would prove as decisive for Obama as the 1860 Cooper Union speech on slavery was to Abraham Lincoln, strengthening Obama’s public image as a candidate who not only understood America’s racial divisions but, like Lincoln, seemed capable of bridging them by linking his views to traditional American ideals. Speaking at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center in March 2008, he insisted that the Constitution “had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”