The Sad Irony of “I Have A Dream”
On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as the iconic leader of the civil rights movement and the charismatic orator to climax the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom with his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. This date was xactly eight years after the brutal murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi. Coincidentally, it was on my birthday (June 23, 1963), just one day following a critical meeting with President Lyndon Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, that Dr. King delivered a speech in Detroit, MI in which he first invoked the words “I have a dream”. Now five decades after Washington’s most famous public gathering, I find myself having grown tired of video clips that only show the end of the speech heard around the world. I wanted to understand why, with all its historical import, have so few actually actual footage of the entire speech in order to better consider than man and his message. Search for answers led me to a place rarely discussed today. Ironically, the very greed connected to what Dr. King grieved so deeply about our world is at the center of why many know so little about the speech itself.
What if we only studied, “And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son”, the close of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”? What if we only knew the words “To be or not to be, that is the question” without ever reading or understanding the context of this popular line? Think about only reciting these words, “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind”, while leaving out the beautiful surrounding words penned by Bob Dylan and sung by Stevie Wonder.
If all we knew were the above words, we would miss a compelling challenge offered by Rudyard Kipling to live humanely, grow into manhood (womanhood) with a sense of purpose, and allow virtues to govern our lives. We might sound insightful at the barbershop or grocery store, but miss the central issue that Shakespeare explored in Hamlet. Namely, are human beings evil by nature or do external influences create evil in humans? And we would fail to explore Dylan’s implications of a world spinning out-of-control in racism, warfare, and a society built largely on the unjust exercise of power both domestically and abroad.
Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was an oratorical x-ray, designed to give the nation an opportunity to examine itself. The speech was a candid critique of a confluence of public policy, cultural sentiments, and systems that conspired to yield gross disparities between rich and poor. Whites and people of color. Resident of finely-manicured communities and those living in America’s ghettos. During that august gathering, Dr. King articulated the American divide to a nation that was indifferent to it.
And yet, five decades later, the climatic address at the March on Washington is largely considered for its rhetorical genius. And that genius confined to Dr. King’s dream state. Clips of the speech reduce a litany of indictments, pleas, and mandates for self-determination to national aspirations, as if the latter is achievable without confronting the former. Lest we forget, Dr. King was clear as to why Negroes and those empathetic to the fight for justice would convene in Washington. And with certainty, purpose was not simply to lure the nation into an altered-state. No, the cause was directed and clear — as evidenced by Dr. King’s own words:
“The important thing that America must realize is this: That at the same time that she refused to give the black man anything, she was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest through an act of Congress. Not only did she give the land, she built land grant colleges to teach them to farm. She provided county agents to help them and to get them expert, to give them expertise in farming. But not only that, the nation provided low interest rates in later years so that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, many of these persons are being paid today not to farm, and these are many of the persons who are telling the Negro that he should lift himself by his own bootstraps. A wonderful thing. (applause) I guess that it is all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. Through centuries of denial, centuries of neglect, and centuries of injustice many, many Negroes have been left bootless. This does not mean that we do nothing for ourselves. It does not mean that we should not amass our economic and political resources to reach our legitimate goals. It simply means recognizing, the nation recognizing, that it owes a great debt on the basis of the injustices of the past.”
Dr. Martin Luther King
January 11, 1968
Ohio Northern University
Dr. King was a ecclesiastical solider of the Lord with a profound understanding of the linkages between faith, economics, politics, and social justice. And August 28, 1968 was Dr, King’s moment in time to make these linkages plain not only to the nation, but also to a people marginalized by centuries of disenfranchisement. Dr. King understood that civil rights must not come with empty hands and veiled acts of piety, but must entail a rearrangement of resources gained by this nation on the backs of enslaved Africans and their lineage.
It is in this context, that “I have a dream” stands among the greatest phrases and greatly trivialized phrases ever uttered in English language. These words, void of context, distort what is arguably the most electric public discourse given on American soil. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 came 17 minutes of reflections, challenges, and visions of a southern baptist preacher that will forever live in American history with Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg and Roosevelt’s response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. And yet, unlike Lincoln’s address and Roosevelt’s response, Dr. King’s speech has suffered from historical highlighting of the words “I have a dream” and marginalizing the other 1,656 words found in the speech.
In some respects, The March on Washington speech was not Dr. King’s most controversial. Many historians point to The Drum Major Instinct sermon — borrowed from Rev. J. Wallace Hamilton’s 1952 message and delivered by Dr. King on February 4, 1968 — as confronting the core of American foreign policy, our nation’s propensity to make war, and incessant thirst of unmitigated power. And in that sermon, Dr. King redefined our notions of personal and American “greatness”.
Dr. M.L. King, Jr. – The Drum Major Instinct
The March on Washington speech, however, defined a national event, attracted international media coverage, galvanized the civil rights community, and quite frankly worried the hell out of authorities that feared the gathering would spark riots. Unlike other equally and more provocative oratories, Dr. King’s address that we celebrate this week was more than a speech. The march was a transforming event. Arguably the event that would no longer allow the world to ignore deep-seated troubles in an evolving nation as seen through the lenses of the dispossessed. The pivotal moment that tipped the balance of national sentiment, altering the course of a bloody struggle and American history, in-general. And yet, one question remains with historians and social critics of the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s defining moment.
How is it that, for all its grandeur and mythology, ordinary citizens know very little of the much anticipated climax to the March on Washington?
How have generations so willingly recalled the “I have a dream” crescendo, but responded with vitriol at the very mention of what Dr. King called a defaulted “promissory note”? How does a nation lift-up the rhetorical ideals of its civil rights Moses found in “I have a dream”, but the Joshua Generation is turned away from these words, “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt”, also spoken by its Moses? And how does a nation celebrate the “dream” just weeks after the Zimmerman not guilty verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin when this also day marks the 58th anniversary of the brutal murder of Emmett Till — a barometer of American injustice?
To many, Dr. King’s most celebrated speech is like a song to which one knows only the chorus. As if the verses have little import. Nothing is farther from the truth of what thousands heard 50 years ago. A dream without a clarion call for what makes it possible is poppycock. A pipe-dream, at-best.
The typical explanation for general unawareness of Dr. King March on Washington speech goes something like this. “The powers-at-be”, black nationalists suggest, “would rather African Americans and the nation at-large to ignore the numerous calls for change expressed by Dr. King.” This logic shaped my thinking for years. That the very white supremacy behind slavery, black codes, and jim crow was at-work to ensure African Americans and empathetic non-blacks would gradually move away from the reality Dr. King’s speech to a homogenized, paralyzing hallucination of it. After all, this would stand to reason given our treatment of other words that critiqued the nation. Bold grievances and statements of courageous self-determination by Nat Turner, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, and others. Indeed, we are a nation that wrestles with confrontational commentaries not only from African Americans, but also from the likes of historic figures such as John Brown and contemporaries such as Tim Wise, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn. Confronting ills in a way that invites the nation to reconsider its founders, organizing documents, historical myths, deep-seated social-political-economic arrangements, and sin itself is an arduous task. Consequently, the “blackout theory” as to our handling of Dr. King’s speech like the ball dropping on New Year’s Eve or some other grand celebration is a plausible explanation.
There is, however, another explanation. One less conspiratorial and less dramatic. This reason comes with a sad irony that protected Dr. King from capitalistic greed, while virtually guaranteeing that many who needed to come against greed would not hear Dr. King’s full message.
Unbeknownst to Dr. King, while he was delivering his passionate appeal and homiletical treasure, Mister Maestro, Inc. and Twentieth Century-Fox Record Company were recording the speech with designs to sell in various commercial forms. Just weeks after the speech, Mister Maestro began selling reproductions. In October 1963, Dr. King and his attorneys filed an injunction in United States Southern District Court New York to block Twentieth Century-Fox from distributing the March on Washington speech as a commercial product. The lawsuit maintained that Dr. King’s I Have A Dream speech was a copyrighted public performance and unauthorized recordings violated the copyright.
In King v. Mister Maestro, Inc, 224 F. Supp. 101, the defendants argued that the speech constituted general publication and was therefore in the public domain, citing: 1) Dr. King’s speech was delivered to an large audience, directly; 2) Further delivery of the speech included broadcasting; 3) Dr. King had distributed pre-releases of the written speech to the media without copyright notices; and 4) By virtual of its general publication, the speech had entered the public domain without the protections afforded to copyright owners. The Court, however, rejected Mister Maestro’s argument, holding that consistent with U.S. copyright laws, public performances do not constitute general publication — irrespective to audience size. The Court’s ruling that protected the I Have Dream speech for the duration of Dr. King’s life provided for its continuation of protection for the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. for the next 30 years.
Contention over the speech’s protections resurfaced during the mid-1990s in the wake of a CBS documentary entitled “The 20th Century”. The film featured extensive footage from the March on Washington and specifically Dr. King’s speech. CBS neither sought the King Estate’s authorization, nor did the media giant agree to pay royalties. Eventually, the estate sued for copyright infringement in United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. (No. 1:96-cv-3052-WCO). Judge William C. O’Kelley ruled in-favor of CBS. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the lower Court’s ruling, deciding that the speech was not general publication and the King Estate was within its right to require a license fee.
Fallout, aftermath, and irony. One might not traditionally associate these words with one of the great oratories of modern times. They are rightful descriptors. Clearly, the fallout of legal contests over the I Have A Dream speech is a tightening of its accessibility. Critics of copyright protections suggest that a national heritage is treated like a commercial enterprise. For instance, a visitor to the History Channel online presentation of the speech in hopes to find a full video rendering will find these words: “We are unable to offer the full ”I Have a Dream” speech, the rights to which are controlled by the Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Aftermath of less-than-optimum accessibility to Dr. King’s March on Washington speech comes in many forms. First, tech-savvy youth of today are not likely to find a video of the “I Have A Dream” speech in their downloaded mobile apps in a time of myriad uncertainties. Many of our youth are trapped in sub-standard housing, segregated schools, and zones confronted with high unemployment, gangs, guns, and drugs. We, as a society, have decided to fill their young bodies with Ritalin and similar medications to calm their troubled minds. Dr. King’s speech, when understood beyond its euphoric appeals, offers a compass for young people to perceive the world around them. The address transcends the times and gives an alternative prism through which youth can assess how far we’ve come and the nature of the challenges we face.
In a time when young people are bombarded with messaging — much of which is destructive — full accessibility to the “I Have A Dream” speech is as critical today as it was during the height of social unrest. As they did August 1968, Dr. King’s words have the power to do so now — to say to a generation of hurting African American youth, particularly, “You are not forgotten. The problems are real and to understand that is not a crunch, but wisdom. Now, get up.”
In addition to the opportunities missed by youth in limited accessibility to the full message, an equally disturbing implication is rooted in the basic framework of civil rights itself. That is, inaccessibility to Dr. King’s actual delivery has created a cottage industry in civil rights that does not remotely mirror the spirit and commitments of a man whose basic premise was not simply cultural or social, but more so, theological. Dr. King consistently affirmed the essence of civil rights and the methods used to attain them must be rooted in God. It was a faith framework into which he was born. Named after a religious reformer who attached 95 Theses of faith on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany — was first and foremost a Christian minister. The son of a socially-conscious pastor. And led by the Lord to effect societal change in a tradition that span the lives of William Penn and David Walker, Dr. King contextualized “rights” as those expressions of our lives that are honored by the Lord.
[pullquote align=”left” textalign=”left” width=”40%”]Recently, a friend brought to my attention a conversation that went as follows. “What became of the Black people from Sumer?” The traveler asked the old man, “for ancient records show that people of Sumer were Black. What happen to them?” “Ah”, the old man signed, “they lost their history so they die.”
-A Sumer Legend
[/pullquote]The most egregious and unintended consequence of limited availability of footage from that late-summer afternoon in 1963 are concerted efforts to turn principles rooted in Christian faith into every left special interest. These efforts seek to redefine the dream. Political parties (and even those oppose to civil rights), cite African Americans in political leadership — President Obama, former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder — as fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Dr. King would not confine justice in terms of holding political office. Dr. King would not allow himself and God’s work to be molded by political parties and their politicians. This resolute faith that did not coward to political parties made Dr. King a dangerous man in his era and distinguishes him from leaders today.
Sadly, the trap of redefining Dr. King’s dream into these revisionist terms have the most indifferent to civil rights now proclaiming, “See, America has arrived in civil rights. Now, let’s move on!”
Likewise problematic is the infusion of special interests that bring to civil rights a number of issues that are in opposition to the God who imparted to Dr. King the wisdom of his dream. Most notably, abortion and homosexuality. The notion that Dr. King would support abortion and homosexual unions as civil rights lacks the most basic of supporting evidence when placed under a theological/historical microscope. Advancing these fallacies requires morphing Dr. King. And that morphing includes some of today’s so-called ministers so intent to wrestle the mantle of civil rights by attaching the movement what God has already rejected. Dr. King was keenly aware of the rising political undercurrents designed to move homosexuality and abortion into the mainstream of American society. And yet, not a single sermon, writing, speech, interview, press release, march, protest, political appeal, organizational alignment, partnership, or any other concrete expression of support can be found in Dr. King’s quest for what he pursued as a mandate from Heaven.
And yet, fallacies become more accepted narratives when Dr. King in full video rendering speaking for himself are not easily retrieved.
Finally, the irony. Commercial interests. Capitalism’s kissing cousin — greed. Greed sought to illegally capitalize Dr. King’s work and his message. And the intersection of greed with Dr. King’s March on Washington speech is a sad reminder of the realities of the world in which we live. Having encouraged Americans to resist the seduction of greed, Dr. King was compelled to guard his work from violations by that same greed. These actions, while protecting the “I Have A Dream” speech unfortunately diminish our societal confrontation with it. Had greed not been a concern, perhaps our discussions about the speech would exceed the dreaming and delve into the thrust of Dr. King’s message.
An upcoming article, entitled “In Search of a King”, will compare and contrast the leadership personified by Dr. King and common models of leadership found in today’s civil rights community.
Just food for thought as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington…
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