King's Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech (Icons of America)
Eric J. Sundquist
Yale University Press, 2009
320 pp., $26.00
Amos N. Jones
"Think with Me Today"
I have a dream … ." This simple collocation of four words has become one of the most instantly recognized quotations of all time. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s trademark refrain is frequently borrowed the world over by journalists, preachers, politicians, screenwriters, and other communicators seeking to convey to their readers and listeners certain visions to be actualized. It marked the high point of a grand and powerful speech delivered in the heart of his country's capital, at a time of wrenching national soul-searching.
The public image of what is known today as the civil rights movement has come to be symbolized by the 1963 March on Washington. There, from a stage erected in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King addressed some 250,000 supporters rallying for protections that would take form within the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The capstone of the historic assembly was his "I Have a Dream" speech, an oration televised around the world. Coming near the midpoint of King's public ministry, the speech encapsulated the essence of a saga begun with the local bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955–56 and ended by his death from an assassin's bullet in Memphis in 1968. So comprehensive has been the subsequent journalistic and academic treatment of the movement that that the meaning behind the famous words that now identify it is simply assumed.
Such unexamined assumptions can prove problematic, according to UCLA professor Eric J. Sundquist, who is author or editor of eight books on American literature and culture. In his latest offering, King's Dream, the distinguished scholar grapples with the question of what King's dream actually was. Taking the "I have a dream" speech as his unit of analysis and recorded history as his data set, Sundquist synthesizes, contextualizes, and answers the question in a number of ways.
Sundquist first reviews the history of American debates about racial ...