Fifty years ago today – when the notion of a black student at the University of Alabama was unfamiliar but the idea of a black man in the White House was unimaginable – Martin Luther King gave one of the greatest speeches ever delivered. In the space of about 17 minutes, Mr. King began the long process of grafting his own dream of racial integration and equality onto the American Dream.
That process is not yet complete; Barack Obama sleeps in the White House but the nightmare legacy of slavery has not been fully erased. And yet with one speech, Mr. King, who would live only five more years, changed the trajectory of the American experience.
It was, by any measure, a remarkable speech, a masterpiece of inspiration and improvisation, a set-piece of spirituality set to the soundtrack of an old Negro spiritual. It was a pastiche of American images (“the curvaceous slopes of California”) and rhetorical imagery (the soaring language of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were, he argued, a “promissory note”). It was a hymn of righteousness, rhythm, rhymes – and the most sober reason.
It may also have been the last great speech given on this continent.
There have been, to be sure, many important speeches since Aug. 28, 1963. Within two years, Lyndon B. Johnson would deliver a memorable speech introducing the Great Society and Lester B. Pearson would offer a thoughtful oration introducing Canada’s new flag. In the years that would follow, Jimmy Carter would deliver a speech about a condition he could not erase but that was remembered for a word he did not name (“malaise”), and Pierre Elliott Trudeau would make a speech remembered almost entirely for his riff on his own name (“My name is a Quebec name, but my name is a Canadian name also”).
But no speech changed as deeply, as powerfully and as permanently the way an entire people viewed themselves and the world they created as Mr. King did when he stood at the Lincoln Memorial and urged a nation – one that spoke bravely of freedom but brazenly denied it to some of its citizens – to allow freedom to “ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city.”
And no speech altered an entire nation’s consciousness and conscience as dramatically as Mr. King’s did when he matched his cause with America’s most sacred founding text and cried, with echoes of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”
Much of the power of that speech came from its context politically and geographically. The March on Washington was the high point of a year of civil-rights struggle. But the geography was just as important. In the centenary year of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, Mr. King delivered his speech in front of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial.
In the years that followed, Richard Nixon would deliver his emotion-laden farewell speech, which changed a presidential administration but didn’t change the hearts of anyone outside the president’s own family; Ronald Reagan would deliver his eulogy to the Challenger astronauts, which eloquently expressed the grief in the hearts of Americans but didn’t wipe away the sadness surrounding the tragedy; and Bill Clinton would acknowledge that the era of big government was over, which expressed reality rather than changed reality.
There were other such speeches that ring in America’s memory, and in history. Senator Edward Kennedy’s 1980 vow that the hope of liberalism would “never die” was a bugle call to progressive politics but was issued in a losing cause. George Bush spoke in his 2002 State of the Union Address of an “axis of evil,” a phrase attributed to Canadian-born David Frum, but the term is remembered more as a characterization than an exhortation.
The truth is that King’s “dream” speech stands alone on this continent as a statement of moral condemnation, a call to action, a clarion of conscience that, in 50 years’ time, has become an agenda for change, an expression of a nation’s values and a beloved element of a country’s canon. No speech since then has remotely approached its importance, its impact – or its place in the imagination of America and the world.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.