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!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
There’s no such thing as a persuasive speech. Sort of…
Today is the anniversary of the greatest speech given on American soil in the 20th Century. That’s the evaluation of many students of rhetoric. It tops the “Top 100” speeches list on AmericanRhetoric.com. And, no argument from me.
Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his masterpiece, I Have a Dream, on August 28, 1963, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. The speech provides a tutorial (“the” tutorial) on the use of repetition. Just a sampling:
Now is the time…
100 years later…
I Have a Dream…
Let Freedom Ring…
Dr. King was the master of metaphor: “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” And his speech is a study in mythos – the American story is what he appealed to, and he used our founding documents (“we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal”), the Bible (“justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream”), the “old Negro spiritual” (“free at last”).
But, as great as this speech was – and it was truly great — this speech did not change the world. Not by itself. Not all at once.
I’ve thought a lot about this. I teach speech; I read many books on issues of race; in other words, I am a student of the civil rights era, and especially civil rights rhetoric.
Here’s what I know. A speech is but one piece of a much bigger effort. There is a reason why people refer to the Civil Rights Movement. It was in fact a movement of many people. It was not one march, one protest, one unjust arrest, one speech, one day of speeches. It was…all of the above, and much more.
The speech was given at the end of a day of speeches and music at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was organized by civil rights leaders and Labor leaders. (Walter Reuther, a white Labor leader, played a crucial role). But the gathering was eight years after the horrible killing of Emmett Till (also on an August 28, 1955), eight years after the arrest of Rosa Parks, a few months after Bull Connor used dogs and fire hoses on peaceful marchers in Birmingham. By the way, Bull Connor and his horrific actions were on the evening news across America – not a small piece of the overall picture.
And, yes, the list is really much larger; nine courageous students in a high school in Little Rock, a young girl named Ruby in New Orleans, a few martyrs of note, and many more.
And remember, it came after the ground was prepared by decades of work by people like A. Philip Randolph. who introduced Dr. King at the speech.
But, this speech seemed to bring together in one moment the argument, the cause, the need. Dr. King said:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
So, here’s my speech lesson for today. When you get a chance to give a speech to make a difference, take it – and take it seriously. Construct, and deliver, a great speech. But don’t forget the foot soldiers, the many, many meetings and marches and protests and articles and conversations and support gatherings that have to go along with the speech. And, don’t forget that part of the impact of this speech came from the fact that it was delivered to the largest crowd ever assembled (up until that day) in Washington D.C.
Big change requires big, over-the-long-haul effort.
Give Dr. King great credit. But spread the credit around, far and wide. It took a movement.
And then, it took more marches (remember Selma, 1965), and it took a President and his efforts. (The part played by LBJ is another big piece of this story).
And, the movement is never quite fully finished. There are more protests, more marches, more speeches needed. But, don’t despair. You know: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”