Invocation. “How I Got Over,” Mahalia Jackson, the last musical performer during the August 1963 March on Washington. A shout from her (she was standing a few feet from King), “tell them about the dream, Martin,” prompted King to abandon his written script and extemporaneously launch into that part of his speech we most remember.
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On this day, 28 August 2023, we mark the 60th anniversary of a speech many consider the most significant of the 20th century. Most citizens here, and many abroad, can replay from memory the mesmerizing “I have a dream” incantation Dr. King delivered.
What we don’t recall is that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom scared the bejeezus out of federal and District of Columbia officials, and even Major League Baseball officials, leading up to that deluge of over 200,000 people coming to DC for the occasion.
As is wont to happen, though, with the passage of time, the “dream” has gotten a bit dreamy. The “dream” rhetoric has been appropriated by all manner of marketers. And sometimes with the explicit permission of the corporation controlling King’s intellectual property, Intellectual Properties Management, which in 2018 authorized King’s image for use in a Ram Truck television ad. (That ad became such an embarrassment that it was removed from social media.)
Decades ago, when I lived in Atlanta, one of my friends in the African American activist community told me of discussions he and others were having about committing civil disobedience to disrupt the upcoming King Birthday March in the city because Gen. Colin Power, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff (the first Black to serve in that role) had been invited to be the marshal in the parade. Military bands have frequently been featured in that annual parade.
Given the times we are in, this much is clear: The “I Have a Dream” speech must be read in light of another of King’s speeches, the “Beyond Vietnam” speech he gave four years later at the Riverside Church in New York City.
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Hymn of remembrance. “The Ballad of Martin Luther King,” by Brother Kirk, Pete Seeger and Sesame Street kids.
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Below is a portion of my 2017 article, “When the dream gets a bit dreamy: On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’”
With Dr. King’s birthday now a national holiday, and his iconic profile ever present around the anniversary of the March on Washington, it’s no longer possible to be sheltered from that historic moment.
The problem with icons, of course, is that they become fixed in stone and have little capacity to get under our skin. Feral history can be tamed. Some forms of remembering work like vaccination: we become immune to prophetic fever. Putting our saints on pedestals allows us to revere their memory while reneging on their mission.
Which is why the meaning of the “I Have a Dream” speech must be read in light of Dr. King’s last major address, delivered in 1967 from the dais of The Riverside Church in New York City. It was a speech that rocked not only the enforcers of Jim Crow but the Civil Rights Movement itself.
In delivering “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” Dr. King enlarged his challenge far beyond segregated buses and integrated lunch counters. Instead, he explicitly linked domestic oppression with international aggression, naming what he called the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”
We forget the scandal he provoked that day, 4 April 1967—precisely to the day one year before his assassination in Memphis. On that day, King referred to the US as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Afterward, King was savaged in the media. Life magazine called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.”
The Washington Post said “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
Reader’s Digest warned it might provoke an “insurrection.”
The New York Times ran an editorial, “Dr. King’s Error,” chiding him for linking foreign policy (the US war in Vietnam) with domestic policy.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation privately called King the “most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country.” They had already, for years, been illegally wire-tapping his phone.
In the days leading up to the March on Washington, apprehension in our nation’s capital was so intense that, in the words of historian Taylor Branch, “the federal government furloughed its workers for the day. The Pentagon deployed 20,000 paratroopers. Hospitals stockpiled plasma. Washington banned sales of alcohol, and Major League Baseball canceled not just one but two days of [Washington’s baseball games], just to be sure.”
According to Roger Mudd, who covered the March on Washington for CBS News, the Kennedy Administration drew up in advance a statement declaring martial law, in case it became necessary.
I encourage you in the coming days to set aside 54 minutes to listen to an unabridged recording of the speech. (You can hear it, and read along with the text, at this site.)
“I Have a Dream” has become a bit dreamy, the sentiment injected with high fructose corn syrup, deep fried with a heavy batter, and rolled in sprinkles. Less than three weeks after the soaring prose at the Lincoln Memorial, King had to do the funerals of slaughtered Sunday school children in Birmingham. The Riverside oration puts the “dream” back into perspective in terms of the challenges still before us.
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Benediction. Patti Smith, “People Have the Power” [lyrics below video]
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