In the first of a three-part series Ronan Burtenshaw interviews Guardian journalist Gary Younge about his new book ‘The Speech’ and the legacy of ‘I Have a Dream’.
What prompted you to write a book about Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?
Younge: Firstly, it’s one of those speeches that lots of people think that they know and they don’t! And secondly it’s a speech that America has embraced in a certain way that I thought was odd. If you know anything about Martin Luther King’s life and death, you know that he was not popular while he was alive. So the manner in which he got folded into the flag, into the patriotism, is interesting. He’s got a statue on the mall now – prime historical real estate. In 1999 when Americans are asked, ‘who is your favourite person of the last century?’ he comes second after Mother Theresa. Two years before he died twice as many people had a bad opinion of him as a good opinion of him. So what the hell is that about?
The speech is central to that. Why do they remember that speech instead of other speeches, like the speech against the Vietnam War? I wanted to interrogate that. And then the other thing, which I knew from various interviews which I had done before, was that there was a compelling story about the speech itself. “I have a dream” isn’t in the text. He introduces it extemporaneously. And the manner in which he introduces it is interesting. All-in-all it speaks to what we remember and how we remember.
Can you tell me a bit about that off-the-cuff addition of “I have a dream”?
Younge: The night before one of his main aides, Wyatt T. Walker, says to him, “don’t do the ‘I have a dream’ thing – it’s trite, it’s cliche, you’ve done it too many times already.” He had done it a week before at a fundraiser for insurance executives, and a few months earlier in Detroit. They thought it was a little bit light-weight, so he goes backwards-and-forwards about whether he should include it or not. He hands over the text at 4 o’clock in the morning and it’s not in it. He gets to the podium and sticks pretty closely to the text for the first two-thirds. If you listen to it he’s winding down. It’s worth listening to, you’ll hear it – “go back to Mississippi, go back to South Carolina”, he’s telling people to go home knowing that somehow this situation would be resolved.
Behind King is Mahalia Jackson, his favourite gospel singer and someone who he has a very special emotional connection with. When he was on the road and feeling down he would call her for what they termed ‘gospel therapy’. She’d sing to him down the phone just to soothe his spirit. Jackson heard him give the speech in Detroit three months earlier and she shouts, “tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” Then he carries on a little bit, “let’s not wallow in the valley of despair, my friends.” And he hears, “tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” At which point he pushes the text to his left and he moves in his body language from a lecturer to a preacher, one guy who was there said, “those people don’t know it but they’re about to go to church”. And then he says, “so though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow I still have a dream…”
Wyatt T. Walker, the guy who told him not to do the segment, is standing in the crowd behind and goes, “oh no, he’s doing the dream.” So it was extemporaneous. It wasn’t ad-libbing, as if he’d never said it before. But he’s a preacher and that tradition of preaching is a call-and-response tradition. If you’ve ever been to a black church, or even seen black people in the cinema, there’s the “that’s right”! It’s a contact sport. So you’re judging the response of the crowd and crafting your speech around that. It was a good speech but he could feel that it was falling short a little, so he swung for the rafters.
And what was the reaction in his inner-circle? Did they immediately recognise that line was going to be a hit? That “I have a dream” would be picked up or popularised?
Younge: No. At the beginning I thought this was like teenagers who stop liking a band when they becoming popular! Everyone I spoke to said, “if you’d asked me fifty years ago would people still be talking about this speech now, I would have said ‘no’.” Nobody thinks it was his best speech. There are some real reasons why. It was televised and for most Americans, particularly white Americans, they’d never heard a speech like this before. Only if you’d been to a black church or were in the Civil Rights Movement. So this was their introduction. Everybody says, “look, it was a great speech, there’s no doubt about it, but great speeches are what he did. He made lots of great speeches.” But this was a speech that more people saw. And also, I argue in the book, it crowns a moment. Within a year the Civil Rights legislation has been passed and so this is an eloquent articulation of the end of American apartheid. Not the end of American racism, but the end of American apartheid. And that’s the last great moral victory that America can call on.
What strikes me as interesting about the phraseology of Martin Luther King’s speech is how it affected white people, how it had a kind of liberal mutualism. There would have been people at the time, left-wing and anti-racist militants, who were making speeches juxtaposing us against them – talking about racial or class divisions in a way that emphasised the need to fight the power. This speech is canonised as an idealistic, liberal, mutualising speech and a lot of white people in the United States, a profoundly racist state, hold dear to it. What do you think Martin Luther King would think now about the way that speech was seen, particularly by white liberals in America?
Younge: There is something to what you said. There was Malcolm X, who was on the prowl at the time and called it “the farce on Washington”. But the ‘black power’ stuff doesn’t come until later with the Black Panthers. If you listen to the speech as well as the stuff that is most often remembered, “my children will be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”, the mutual stuff you’re talking about, it’s also a searing indictment of American racism. There’s no way that if you’re serious about judging the whole speech you come away thinking the situation is great. This is, “America has given us a bad cheque and we’ve come to cash that cheque… Two hundred years later we’re still not free… This is not the time to cool off, now is the time…” It’s not as happy-clappy a speech as people like to portray it is.
And he wasn’t as happy-clappy a guy as people like to say. Actually, he becomes more and more unpopular as time goes on. As he calls America the greatest purveyor of military violence in the world, as he starts talking about capitalism. He’s a bad-ass! Were he alive now I think he’d say, “who knew?” Because that was still a controversial speech – even then. The overwhelming majority of white Americans did not want the march to happen. Even two years later the overwhelming majority of white Americans thought that Civil Rights was going too fast.
I think he would be greatly bemused by the degree to which so much of his legacy is reduced to one speech and then traduced to symbolise only “can’t we all get along”. Because it wasn’t just that. It was also, “this is why we don’t get along”. We don’t get along because you’ve got all the stuff and you won’t give it to us, and because you owe us an uncashed cheque and we’ve come here to cash it.
Is there a fundamental departure between this speech, which you describe as a crowning moment of the end of segregation, and Beyond Vietnam, the Poor People’s Campaign? The Martin Luther King who is dealing with poverty, capitalism and imperialism and the Martin Luther King who makes the I Have a Dream speech?
Younge: No, I think there’s a clear evolution because you have to get rid of apartheid. Before you get rid of apartheid there’s nothing you can do. You can’t talk about redistribution of wealth in a meaningful way. We know now that it ends in ’64, but they didn’t know that in ’63. Once that’s gone he’s interested in equality and not integration – they are two different things. He says people have a right to eat wherever they want but as long as our people can’t afford what’s on the menu we need a redistribution of wealth. In the talks I do I talk about an essay he wrote called, ‘Where Do We Go from Here?’ He says, ‘you have to ask, who owns the oil? Who owns the iron ore? You have to ask questions about capitalism’. That kind of talk will get you killed. And sure enough, a year or so later, it does.
But there is a progression from ‘you’ve issued us a bad cheque, we’re still not free’ to ‘we have to deal with poverty’. Because you can’t have equality until you get rid of apartheid but you also need a fairer distribution of wealth and to address the historical injustices. He struggles with anti-imperialism a bit more, for a couple of reasons. One is that he really takes a hit when he talks about it – the movement takes a hit, the funds dry up, the access dries up. You don’t take that step lightly. And the other is because Lyndon Johnson did the Civil Rights Bill, the Voting Rights Bill, he created the framework of the modern welfare state with the Great Society. To come out in such a big way was a major departure.
One of his former aides, Jack O’Dell, when I asked him about the differences between these phases said, ‘look, by that time he knew he was going to die.’ There was Kennedy in ’63, Malcolm X in ’65 – a plausible account of how his life was going to end was from somebody’s bullet. There were things he had to say. There’s are lines in the book from Rachel Horowitz and James Baldwin where both of them say that one of King’s great attributes was his ability to talk to white people who were prepared to listen, which was a minority, while keeping black people onboard. Obama has that ability too I would say. But as he is coming to the end of his short life Martin Luther King is less concerned with being politic and more concerned with being strident and forthright.
Part two of this series will explore the Obama presidency as it relates to Martin Luther King and his legacy; part three will ask, what relevance does Martin Luther King have today?
Photos by Bob Adelman and Charles Moore.