Sunday, August 24, 2008
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Reflecting on King's 'I Have a Dream' speech 45 years later

Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech is as moving and profound as it was 45 years ago.

At the north end of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge in downtown Roanoke is this plaza, which includes a statue of King along with benches with speakers that broadcast the late civil rights leader's speeches. He delivered his

Photo by Eric Brady | The Roanoke Times

At the north end of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge in downtown Roanoke is this plaza, which includes a statue of King along with benches with speakers that broadcast the late civil rights leader's speeches. He delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the "March on Washington" on Aug. 28, 1963.

One evening late last spring, as the sun was setting, I sat down on a bench to gaze at Martin Luther King Jr.

The city's new statue, dedicated in February, is bronze, 7 feet tall and shows the great man reaching out with both arms. His lips are parted, as if he's giving one of his famous speeches. All that's missing are the words.

At my elbow was a button. I can't resist a button, so I pushed it.

And out of a loudspeaker came the sonorous, Sunday-morning voice of King himself, delivering his most famous speech:

"I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation," he began.

For 17 minutes I sat listening, spellbound again.

There is something irresistible about this speech: the blend of innocence and passion, the thundering against injustice and the longing for a better day, the memorable lines and the rhythms of the Baptist pulpit.

It moves, and moves you with it. It's a wave that lifts you up and holds you high, before setting you down, re-energized, on a foreign shore.

And to think the best part of was improvised, right on the spot.

King gave other speeches. If you sit down at another bench -- there are four of them around the statue, at the top of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge at the downtown end of Henry Street -- and push another button, you can hear some of them.

But none had quite the impact of "I Have a Dream," which still echoes through American life and culture today. A 1999 University of Wisconsin-Madison/Texas A&M University poll of scholars named it the top political speech of the century. Black presidential candidate Barack Obama sometimes borrows one of its most poignant phrases -- "The fierce urgency of now."

King delivered the speech on Aug. 28, 1963 -- 45 years ago this Thursday. Hundreds of thousands of Americans -- black and white -- had assembled peacefully between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, in a "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."

A full century after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the Jim Crow South was alive and well. Schools, restaurants, water fountains, restrooms were still segregated. Most Southern blacks could not vote. But change was in the air, as was clear from the trainloads of black people arriving at Washington's Union Station that day, singing "We Shall Overcome."

Folksingers Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary got things started by performing on the mall that morning. At least half a dozen speakers preceded King.

A press contingent in the hundreds added to the excitement. By the time King was introduced by march leader Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as "the moral leader of our nation," all three television networks were broadcasting the event live.

King spoke often.

It was his living, after all. He was a Baptist preacher as well as a national leader in the battle for civil rights. He had preached from many pulpits, including his own at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

So the man who took the stage that day in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln to talk to 200,000 to 300,000 people and a live television audience that included the president of the United States was no rookie when it came to moving people with his words.

Nonetheless, writes Taylor Branch in "Parting the Waters," his Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of the King years, the written speech King had before him wasn't all that great.

It was "politically sound, but far from historic, nimble in some streaks while club-footed through others," Branch writes. It did contain some great lines -- not only "the fierce urgency of now," but the one about America giving black people a bad check.

Virginia Tech rhetoric professor Kelly Pender notes King's speech is full of such metaphors.

"But if I were writing an article on the speech's effectiveness, I would be focusing on style and delivery, the last two canons of classical rhetoric," Pender said. "There's no question that King's preacherly oratory made it a success."

The speech gets better as it goes -- and there's a reason for that.

As Branch describes it, the pivotal moment comes just after a line that went over very well that day: "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

The crowd loved it. But the next line introduced what Branch called "the lamest and most pretentious section" of the whole speech:

"And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction."

A yawner.

But King never said it. Instead, he lifted his eyes from his written text, and started talking about a dream.

You can see the moment perfectly on the video, available on YouTube.

King's eyes, which for the first two-thirds of his speech keep returning to the text, finally settle on the sea of humanity instead. Once or twice, King's eyes turn upward, as if seeking a little help in figuring out what comes next.

What did come still resonates today:

"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.'

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood ...

"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."

From his dream, King moves to a stanza of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and goes on to talk of freedom ringing from New Hampshire to "every hill and molehill of Mississippi." He ends with the lines of an old Negro spiritual:

"Free at Last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" to thunderous applause.

Even President John F. Kennedy, watching King's speech on TV, was reportedly impressed.

"He's damn good," said the president to his aides.

Roanoke's new memorial is by Chicago artists Jeffrey and Anna Koh Varilla. Anna Koh Varilla said their statue of King speaking with outstretched arms is meant to convey not just his ability to communicate, but also his "compassion and understanding."

She said the statue is meant above all to show King connecting with the people around him.

In addition to the "I Have a Dream" speech, the benches facing the monument also feature King's Sept. 18, 1963, eulogy for the young victims of a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing, and his Dec. 10, 1964, acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.

There is also "I've Been to the Mountaintop," in which King speaks of the possibility of an early grave:

"I may not get there with you," he told his listeners in Memphis, Tenn., "but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

The next day, April 4, 1968, King was killed by an assassin's bullet.

He was tragically young -- just 39. But for a little while last spring, thanks to Roanoke's new memorial, I dreamed his dream again.

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