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King's Dream (Icons of America)
King's Dream (Icons of America)
Eric J. Sundquist
Yale University Press, 2008
320 pp., 26.00

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Amos N. Jones

"Think with Me Today"

The seedbed of Martin Luther King Jr.'s, greatest speech.

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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 justice, spanning three centuries. He then demonstrates how King's speech pristinely embodies the story of African American freedom. Next, he surveys the extent to which the meaning of the speech "has been obscured by its appropriation for every conceivable cause." He finally asserts its continuing relevance for contemporary arguments about equality. Covering some of the same territory explored in Drew Hansen's 2003 book The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, but from a fresh perspective, Sundquist sets King's speech within the cultural and rhetorical traditions on which the civil rights leader drew in crafting his oratory.

At the outset, Sundquist lauds King for having "departed from his prepared text and spoken so eloquently about his 'dream' of racial justice in America"—a seemingly spontaneous move, reportedly encouraged through the call-and-response exhortation of gospel great Mahalia Jackson near the end of the address, that led to his sketching a brilliant image of how a righteous America would look when freedom finally had rung.

As Sundquist notes, the speech is still studied for its evidence of King's unwavering belief that equal rights for black Americans entailed nothing more, and nothing less, than returning to the nation's founding ideals. Knowing what King meant is important because the Baptist minister is universally and undisputedly regarded as the timeless spokesman for black Americans. Resting any claim on the authority of this modern-day prophet can prove determinative in efforts to make policy. And Sundquist calls attention to significant debates over King's meaning that rage on even today, among them whether King was calling for a liberal reordering of American society that would favor race-based preferences on some road to remediation for slavery and Jim Crow segregation, or whether the legislative actions designed to ensure equal opportunity, or formal equality, go far enough that his dream is thereby fulfilled.

Sundquist is never nostalgic in his treatment of the times, the man, or the speech. A comprehensive investigator, he draws on the input of King's friends, critics, and other assorted contemporaries to shed light on the subject. For example, he suggests that "I Have a Dream" might not have been King's best speech in purely rhetorical terms. He cites three other contenders in that category: the 1965 speech at the conclusion of the Voting Rights march from Selma, Alabama, for its commanding capping of two months of tension and violence that ended with a final march on the steps of the former capitol of the Confederacy in Montgomery; the 1967 anti-Vietnam War speech at New York's Riverside Church, for its stinging censure of his country's foreign policy, which cost him support and prestige among constituencies white and black; and the 1968 speech delivered in Memphis's Mason Temple on the eve of his assassination, which foretold the tragic fate that awaited him the next day, when he was shot to death. In the end, though, Sundquist rests on the judgment of the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, a lieutenant of King's while the two simultaneously served Baptist congregations in Montgomery and, later, Atlanta, and one of the ministers who walked out onto the hotel balcony moments after King had been assassinated. Abernathy's reason for preferring "I Have a Dream," Sundquist concludes, "was exactly right": The speech was "a prophecy of pure hope at a time when black people and the nation as a whole needed hope more than anything else."

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