Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Speech Unsurpassed

I have recently undertaken the project of backing up and organizing all my assorted audio file CD/DVD collection on to an external hard drive. In the process of going through some older stuff I have on CD I came across Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a Dream” speech. The speech lasts a bit under 17 minutes; and I have listened to it a couple of times over the past few weeks.

February is Black History Month so the time was rather auspicious that I would rediscover this audio file after so many years. February is also the month that I place the Stars and Bars flag out on my front porch. The first elected Confederate Congress met in Richmond, Virginia on February 18, 1862, some 150 years ago this past Saturday. I’ll let my readers struggle with the apparent contradiction between my admiration for Dr. King’s speech and my lifelong appreciation for the failed Southern Confederacy. There is no incongruity in my mind.

Anyway, as I listened to Dr. King’s speech a couple of things occurred to me. First of all, I remember my university days when the college radio station would play one of Dr. King’s sermons on Monday evenings at 7pm. I made a habit of tuning in because I have heard few speakers in my lifetime as powerful and inspiring as Dr. King. His sermons were not always the best of speeches but the overall body of work was of interest to me. The man was a consistently effective speaker. I heard several dozen of his sermons recorded on Sunday mornings at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.


Of course, Dr. King had been dead many years by the time I became acquainted with him as a public speaker. I have no memory of his person as I was 8 years old when he was murdered.

The fundamental aspect of Dr. King’s oratory talent, of course, lies in his voice. It is a deep, solid, confident voice. It resonates with emotion without shouting; it is forceful without sounding self-serving or arrogant. His rolling distinctly southern inflections, his change of speed and fluctuations of tone are obvious if you study his delivery but, like a work of art, he can be appreciated and have an effect on the listener without any understanding of the very real machinations of his utterances.


The “dream” speech capped off activities for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which occurred on August 28, 1963. It was delivered before about 200,000 people and was broadcast “pre-recorded” to millions of Americans by CBS News. I use this youtube video of it for the mention of timings below.

Dr. King is introduced as “the moral leader of our nation.” In a slow, dominant procession and cadence of rhythmic words, he begins by declaring the event of his speech, the assemblage of thousands that have turned out facing the Lincoln Memorial on the great National Mall, as “what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

“Five score years ago…” Dr. King speaks of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the style of the famous Gettysburg Address. He also engages the moment in the reverent, self-righteous, and high-minded ideals of Lincoln’s bold act of freedom for the slaves (though it is of interest to note that Lincoln's proclamation freed no slaves in the Union itself). Dr. King wishes to express himself on his great stage at this high philosophic level. And he does so. Powerfully.

The first major applause of his speech by the large audience comes just before 4:30 into it. Dr. King says deliberately and with utter conviction: “America has given the Negro a bad check. A check marked ‘Insufficient Funds’.” The audience applause lasts 12 seconds. Dr. King waits, basking in the moment.

At about 5 minutes Dr. King speaks: “So we have come to cash this check; a check which will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” Fully nine seconds of applause rewards these comments, which seem overly idealistic in today's more cynical times. So far has idealism fallen in the postmodern world.

Dr. King speaks of the “urgency” of the Now. “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” Dr. King proclaims the “sweltering summer” of “the Negro’s discontent.” At about 6:45 comes this: “Those that hoped that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.” 13 continuous seconds of applause.

He cautions at about 7:37: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thrust for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. (Light applause for five seconds.) We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plain of dignity and discipline.” Dr. King grounds this emotional wellspring he is building with his speech into a tempered and thoughtful manifestation.

He thunders on about “our creative protest” and the “marvelous new militancy” though he cautions against attitudes of racial hatred by black Americans themselves because “many of our white brothers…have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.” (10 seconds of applause)

“We can never be satisfied…” becomes the repeated chant of the next section of the speech. Dr. King starts to establish his control of the audience and repeats this phrase. Then at 10:32 through applause: “No. No we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (10 seconds of applause)

Dr. King’s voice works as a clanging bell, ringing loud and clear. Strong, confident, full of deep personal conviction.

The “dream” aspect of this speech is first mentioned at 12:20. He claims it is “deeply rooted in the American dream….We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” A Jeffersonian phraseology interestingly enough.

From there, Dr. King builds upon the repetition of the word “dream” to 13:38: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!” (10 seconds of applause)

Through 14:30 Dr. King briefly transforms himself into a southern Baptist preacher as anointed with the Holy Spirit. He knows he speaks the inevitable truth of equality. He knows it does not exist as he gives this speech. He takes the power of that force of change and places it into his speech, into his “dream.”

Then comes the “with this faith” repetition at about 15 minutes. “With this faith we will be able to untangle the jangling discord of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

At 15:38 Dr. King quotes: “My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father’s died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And he rings out to the crowd, lifting them up. And he spins this metaphor into the oppression of his Now. And it builds as he geographically mentions specific places covering all of America, including the south.

16:47 through continued applause: “And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, (Dr. King clinches his fists at the crowd, arms locked straight…power) black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholic 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’re free at last.'” (Dr. King immediately turns and leaves the podium without hesitation. There is thunderous applause and an empty podium.)

There are several phrases Dr. King uses over and over in exacting southern Baptist preacher style to craft an emotional connection with his vast audience. “100 years later…” “Now is the time…” “We can never be satisfied...” “Go back to…” “I have a dream…” “With this faith…” “Let freedom ring…” The crescendo of the speech explodes into a vast and glorious personal freedom beyond every prejudice and economic woe.

It appears that the entire “dream” metaphoric finale was orated by Dr. King extemporaneously or perhaps by rote. He does not look down at any notes in these final minutes as he does regularly throughout the first ten minutes of his speech. The man and the crowd and the moment were joined in a way that has not been seen in America since that day.

I find myself wondering where have all the great speeches gone? Why are the few more recent great ones like Ronald Reagan’s “Challenger Disaster Speech” in 1986 (lasting less than 5 minutes) or some of Robert Byrd’s speeches as recently as 2003 that I have posted about previously and have personal memory of, why do even these rare speeches pale in comparison with Dr. King’s great speech?

President Obama has never delivered such a speech, despite his great oratorical skills and overall charisma (which is a central part of what polarizes so many against him). If anyone needs to make such a speech today it is Obama; and perhaps Obama is another Dr. King in some respects. But, he does not have Dr. King's unique voice nor does he possess Dr. King's passion, so the delivery of words will always be different; and he does not live in Dr. King’s black and white times. Dr. King's speech mentions nothing about Latinos or Asians or Muslims, for example. Today there are many more colors and varieties contending for even greater rights and standards of living. Our times seem far too complicated for the spoken inspiration of any person. And yet this 1963 speech still resonates with us.

The bar was set high on a mountaintop that summer day. Even Dr. King’s
other most-famous speech about “I have been to the mountaintop,” delivered the night before his assassination in 1968, does not match this splendid high moment, though it may perhaps be considered the lesser of mutually outstanding twin peaks.

In today’s even more complexly polarized political landscape, with debt choking us and jobs eluding a multitude of persons of every color and creed, it would seem a grand and glorious act of healing compassion to hear someone utter such words, perhaps even on another topic, with such delivery and rhetorical style that the words stand by themselves and live in the consciousness of society as a whole. Dr. King bound the wounds of his time with his words. These words still have that healing capacity today. This is the greatest speech of my lifetime to date, and though I have no personal memory of it, neither can I imagine the circumstances nor the talent and emotional intellect that would allow some future speech to surpass it.

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