Barack Obama’s election as president had a thousand fathers in the long history of the struggle against American racism. But three events stand out as decisive in creating the possibility of an African-American president.
The first, in 1863, was Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which promised freedom but was followed by a century of harsh discrimination. The second was the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, signaling the end of legal tolerance for discrimination. The third was the speech the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the March on Washington in 1963, 100 years after Lincoln’s proclamation.
“I have a dream” is the refrain by which the speech is known — better known to Americans today than any other speech, even the Gettysburg Address. (In 2008, according to one study, 97 percent of American teenagers recognized the words as King’s.) But for all its familiarity and indisputable greatness, the origins and larger meaning of the speech are not generally understood.
The speech and all that surrounds it — background and consequences — are brought magnificently to life in Eric Sundquist’s new book, “King’s Dream.” A professor of literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, Sundquist has written about race and ethnicity in American culture. In this book he gives us drama and emotion, a powerful sense of history combined with illuminating scholarship.
A remarkable fact of which I was unaware is that the last third of the speech — the part about the dream — was extemporized by King. He had a text, completed the night before. But as he was addressing the crowd, protesting the indignities and brutalities suffered by blacks, he put the prepared speech aside, paused for a moment and then introduced an entirely new theme.
“I still have a dream,” he said. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
“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.’ ”
With that quotation from the Declaration of Independence, King made clear that his vision of the future for black Americans was for them to be part of the larger society, not embittered opponents of it. He reiterated the point a few minutes later. Faith in his dream, he said, will bring a day “when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.’ ” Those “I have a dream” paragraphs still bring tears to my eyes.
The sources of that last third of the speech, fascinatingly explored by Sundquist, include King’s own previous speeches, Negro spirituals, the Bible. We hear Handel’s “Messiah” when he says, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted.” But of course the words come from the book of Isaiah.
The image of the dream appeared in earlier King speeches, again coupled with ultimate belief in America. In Charlotte, N.C., in 1960 he said: “In a real sense America is essentially a dream — a dream yet unfulfilled. It is the dream of a land where men of all races, colors and creeds will live together as brothers.”
As early as 1955, when he was chosen at the age of 26 to lead the boycott of the segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., he spoke in what Sundquist calls his “ornate metaphorical style,” evident in his first speech to the boycotters. “We are not here advocating violence. We have never done that,” King said. “The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. That’s all. And certainly, certainly, this is the glory of America, with all its faults. This is the glory of our democracy. If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtain of a Communistic nation we couldn’t do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”
King’s praise for the American ideal and his strategy of peacefully striving to be included were opposed by a very different tradition: separatism, black nationalism, anger. That tradition informed the rhetoric used by Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and others. It is reflected, too, in the rhetoric of Barack Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, when he declared, “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.”
It was a historical reality — up through very recent history — that black Americans were treated as less than human. Not just because they were bought and sold in slavery, but because they were denied ordinary respect and security after slavery ended. As late as the 1950s, in the capital city of this country, blacks were segregated in schools and theaters and lunch counters. Well into the 1960s they were prevented from voting in much of the South by deceit and violence, including murder. And the barriers stood outside the South, too. Indeed, until the election of 2008, the prospect of a black president was almost unimaginable.
King and his colleagues suffered humiliation and assaults that required superhuman restraint to absorb. On June 11, 1963, Medgar Evers, an N.A.A.C.P. official in Mississippi, was shot and killed by a white supremacist as he arrived home. At a memorial rally the next day his widow, Myrlie Evers, addressed an angry audience and pleaded with it, successfully, to stay true to avoiding violence.
King’s own home was bombed in 1956, his wife and daughter barely escaping injury. When King arrived at the scene, a menacing group of supporters was there, some of them armed and ready to confront the police commissioner and the mayor. King appealed to the crowd to “love our white brothers.” His wife heard voices singing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” The crowd dissipated.
The Lincoln Memorial, the site of King’s “dream” speech, was born in racism. At the dedication ceremony in 1922, blacks were seated in a segregated section. The black speaker, Robert Russa Moton, president of the Tuskegee Institute, spoke from a text censored by the sponsors of the event before he delivered it. Among the deleted passages was a statement that the Lincoln Memorial was “but a hollow mockery, a symbol of hypocrisy, unless we can make real in our national life, in every state and every section, the things for which he died.”
Why did King abandon his written text that day at the Memorial? It may be, Sundquist suggests, that despite shouts of approval he felt he had not really connected with the audience. His wife, Coretta Scott King, thought the words “flowed from some higher place.” In any event, the result was for the ages.
“Speaking suddenly from the heart,” Sundquist writes, “he delivered a speech elegantly structured, commanding in tone, and altogether more profound than anything heard on American soil in nearly a century. In the midst of speaking, King rewrote his speech and created a new national scripture.”
It is important to understand, as Sundquist does, that King’s role in moving this country toward the ideal of equal treatment would not have been possible without the Brown decision in 1954. The Supreme Court gave not only a legal but a moral legitimacy to the campaign against racism. It was not only the words of the Declaration of Independence and the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation that supported the black claim to justice. It was the decision of the country’s highest court that segregating children in school — and, in the cases that followed, racial discrimination in any public facility — violated the fundamental law of the land.
The Brown case had an additional significance. It inspired blacks in the South to demand their rights as they never had before, without waiting for lawsuits. Black college students began sitting in at drugstore lunch counters to demand service; Rosa Parks and countless others suffered hardship to protest the humiliation of being forced to sit in the back of the bus.
King counseled his audiences not to depend on law and other external forces alone to achieve freedom. It also required personal commitment and effort. The African-American “will only be truly free,” he said in 1967, “when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive selfhood his own emancipation proclamation.” Assertive selfhood.
One other theme was there in the “dream” speech: that freedom and justice are for both blacks and whites. In the earlier part of the speech, before the extemporized passages, King said: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
Those words did not lead soon or easily to the remarkable turn away from racism that made possible the election of Barack Obama. King endured hard times before his death in 1968. His attempts to bring the gospel of justice to Northern cities foundered; black ghetto dwellers were less responsive to talk of peace and love, and some whites responded violently. Advocacy of black power became the rhetoric of the moment.
But in the long run King’s message has prevailed. Black Americans have followed his call for assertive selfhood, taking their place in the ranks of professionals, intellectuals, political leaders. White Americans, most of them, have come to realize, as King said, “that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
When Barack Obama walked on the stage in Grant Park, Chicago, late on election night, the emotional response there and in millions of homes bore out King’s understanding, “We cannot walk alone.” It is a commonplace now to associate Obama with Martin Luther King. That is not just sentiment. Without King, Barack Obama would not be taking the oath as the 44th president of the United States.