50 years on, who can match ‘I have a dream’?
Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington in August 1963 helped change a country. Barack Obama has been voted the best modern speechmaker – and next week, on the anniversary of King’s speech, he’ll be speaking from the same steps. Could he, or any one else, have anything like the same effect?
Let freedom ring: Martin Luther King jnr at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th, 1963. Photograph: AP Photo
‘I have a dream.” Four words that have come to sum up a people’s struggle for freedom. When Dr Martin Luther King jnr took to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th, 1963, as a leader of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he gave one of the greatest speeches in modern history: 16 minutes of oratory, before more than 200,000 people on the National Mall and millions more on television, that inspired the civil-rights movement and helped to end segregation in the southern states of the US.
“I have a dream,” he proclaimed halfway through his speech, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” He ended by saying: “And when this happens, and when we allow freedom 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, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, 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 are free at last!”
Standing in the crowd that day was 14-year-old Candace Allen, who is now a writer and filmmaker. “I remember it was a very hot day,” she says. “I could hear the speech coming from the loudspeakers, but, as you can imagine, we were very far back, and in 1963 the sound was not terrific.”
Allen had heard King speak several months before the Washington march at a fundraising event at the home of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play major-league baseball, who was the father of her best friend. She believes King tried out the “I have a dream” passage several times before his Washington speech.
“My best friend’s father started the first of a series of fundraising jazz concerts for civil-rights causes in their backyard. Ella Fitzgerald played, and Duke Ellington, and Dr King was there with the civil-rights activist Roy Wilkins. I was serving hot dogs.
“When I heard the ‘I have a dream’ speech after, I realised the riff was something he had been using for the past several months. I am sure he did a short riff of the dream part of the speech at the jazz concert I was at the June previous. He had this thing in his voice, this quality. It was an African-American quality to his voice.”
Allen says she had an adrenaline rush when she reread the speech recently. “The combination of the intellectual concepts he had at his grasp, as well as the Bible, and the way he incorporated spiritual lyrics, to be able to bring them all together and feed off the energy of the audience was so powerful.”
The speech also influenced the former Irish president Mary Robinson, who was studying for an entrance scholarship exam to Trinity College Dublin at the time. “I had wanted to study law, and when I heard that speech I said that’s why I want to study law. Law is about social justice for all.” When she later won a scholarship to Harvard Law School, she says, she found that “Martin Luther King was such a presence, and we followed his marches. Then in April 1968 we were devastated by his assassination.”
Can a speech today have the impact of King’s? The people polled in a recent UK survey ranked Barack Obama as the best living speechmaker. On Wednesday next week the US president will mark the 50th anniversary of the Washington speech with his own on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The New York Times pointed out this week that he’ll need to offer Americans a “stirring, resonant moment that goes beyond his sometimes professorial remarks, without falling into a politically dangerous mimicry of Dr King’s cadences and rhythms”. “I’d be pretty nervous as a speechwriter,” Jeff Shesol, a speechwriter for Bill Clinton, told the newspaper. “It’s high-stakes speechwriting, no question.”
Here, the Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins believes the media make it less likely that a single speech can have the influence King’s had. “The media in a sense decides a lot of these issues, and they now select what they consider to be a brilliant speech,” he says. “Most of the best speeches in Dáil Éireann, for example, are never reported on. A speech is only words. It is the context that decides what is the power and the relevance of the words. If Dr King had given his speech to a few people in a half-empty room no one would be talking about it. The August 1963 speech was to a huge rally, and there was huge emotion and yearning from a people for their rights. That is why people reacted to the words.”
Candace Allen says the only speech she has heard that came close to “I Have a Dream” was Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, during the 2008 US presidential election campaign. “It had some elements of Dr King’s, and President Obama is also an excellent speaker,” Allen says. “But with Dr King it was like the landing on the moon. It was so new to so many people to hear this combination of talents and thoughts that it helped it transcend everything.”