The upcoming 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech will confirm its status as one of the most famous orations of all time: anniversary celebrations are planned all around the world, and President Barack Obama will deliver a commemorative address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the very place where King spoke at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. The celebration is called the “Let Freedom Ring” event, after one of the most famous lines from the speech—and for many people, those famous lines may be the only things they know about King. It wasn’t that way in 1964. King, who had been a key public figure in civil rights since 1955, was known through much of his life as as a left-wing speaker who proposed that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” Today, he may be mostly known for one of his least overtly political addresses. “It has overshadowed other, more important, more substantive speeches and writings,” says Clarence B. Jones, counsel and advisor to King, who consulted on the writing of the speech.
King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” or his speech against the Vietnam War, were more openly radical in their rhetoric, emphasizing the tough solutions that would be required for the problems created by centuries of discrimination. In the Birmingham letter, written shortly before the Dream speech, King emphasized that America couldn’t just be fixed by changing the minds of racists, and that an almost equally important problem was “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” In the Dream speech, whose conclusion was partly improvised, King didn’t change his message, but made it more easily accessible to those same white moderates, reassuring them that they could help create “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” and soft-pedalling the criticisms of their timidity.
That broad appeal, though, may have backfired on King’s posthumous reputation, leading to what liberal commentator David Sirota has called the “Santa-Claus-ization” of King—his transformation into a non-threatening figure who dreamed a dream that wouldn’t be controversial with anyone. In fact, it was a message so broad in its appeal that even people far to King’s right have claimed him as one of their own: based on that one speech, Sarah Palin praised King as a man who dedicated his life to “freedom, including freedom from stifling, overbearing governments.”
Conservatives have even used one line from the speech to argue that King was really a conservative himself, who would have opposed affirmative action and other government programs. Ronald Reagan explained that he opposed racial quotas because “we want a colour-blind society, a society that, in the words of Dr. King, judges people not on the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
It would have come as a surprise to King to learn that he was a conservative. “Without question, that line has been taken and misapplied out of context,” Jones says, adding that if King were alive today, he “would most likely have been more ‘progressive’ than he was at the time of his assassination.” But, for those who only know King from a few soundbites from one speech, it seems almost plausible to view him as an appealing figure for conservatives and liberals alike—and therefore, as a less polarizing figure than he really was in his time.
Clayborne Carson, professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, says that the Dream speech is not watered-down, but is in fact “similar to other great King orations in that he offers a broad vision of the goals of the African-American freedom struggle.”
The basically optimistic, even conciliatory tone of the Dream speech may have been tailored to the crowd King was reaching on that day in Washington. In attendance, Jones says, were “more than 250,000 people, 20 to 25 per cent white,” who had braved the August heat to hear an inspiring message, and mass media coverage guaranteed the biggest, broadest audience King had ever spoken to. “He was aiming not to convince the immediate audience at the March on Washington, but more importantly, the country at large,” Jones explains.
That did not mean playing down the facts of racism in America, or failing to tell uncomfortable truths. But it did mean appealing to shared ideas of American greatness, portraying the founding ideals of the country as a “promissory note” that it had yet to live up to. Instead of a critique of the compromises that the country was based on, or the racial attitudes of its founders, King argued that the ideals of the Founding Fathers required an end to racism, whether or not they ever would have dreamed of such a thing. “King called upon Americans to realize the promise of American democracy as expressed in the nation’s Declaration of Independence,” says Carson. “The ‘dream’ refrain provided a word portrait of the kind of society that would emerge in the future if Americans decided to transform shared democratic ideals into reality.” It was a message crafted to appeal to every reasonable person in the country, phrased in terms that only a racist could disagree with.
Though historians try to call the public’s attention to the full range of King’s beliefs and arguments, they also know that the Dream rhetoric is what catches the public’s eye and sells his story. Carson, who was in attendance at the March on Washington as a 19-year-old student, wrote a book entitled Martin’s Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. “I wish,” he says, “that the entire speech was as well-known as the extemporaneous concluding remarks about the Dream.” Sections of the speech are less ingratiating than others, such as King reminding his listeners that racism was still a major problem, even outside the segregated South, or his statement that there needs to be economic equality to achieve racial equality: telling his listeners that African-Americans lived in “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” he suggested that simply ending segregation would not be enough. But these points have nearly been forgotten, or at least have been glossed over, in the rush to emphasize the more ringing and optimistic sections, including the hypnotic repeated refrain of “Let freedom ring!” Carson thinks that simply by studying the speech in full, we can learn more than we can from a quick summary: “There is much that I didn’t understand when I attended the march,” he says. “There is much I’m still learning.” And the one thing we may be able to learn from reading the whole speech, and King’s broader body of work, is that he was talking about a dream that he didn’t expect to see come true in his lifetime—and one that hasn’t come true yet.