50 Years Later: The Critical Backstory to Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech

martin_luther_king-sitHKR Aug 24 2013: Today in Washington DC tens of thousands of folks will converge upon the nation’s capitol in front of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The actual anniversary is August 28th, but alot of activity will go down today since the 28th falls on a weekday. There will also be a march on the actual day as well.. That’s when President Obama will speak

Dozens of people spoke on that historic day 50 years ago, but what is most remembered is Dr Martin Luther King’s iconic ‘I Have A Dream‘ speech. It’s become a defining moment for the Civil Rights Movement and 50 years later its still highlighted as a major theme for us and many other people to circle around.

There are far too many conferences, rallies and political gatherings to name off where the theme has been some variation of MLK’s Dream… A few years ago in Memphis, Tennessee there was a Dream Reborn Conference which was supposed to signify the mantle of the Civil Rights Movement being handed off to a younger generation. There have been a number of Conferences that have focused on ‘Is the Dream Still Alive’..

Our guest, veteran journalist, historian and author Gary Younge, who has just penned a book called ‘The Speech‘, pointed out the irony to all this is that Dr King had no intention of using the phrase I Have a Dream when he took to the podium that afternoon. In fact he was told by some of his closest aides who had heard a variation of that theme the week before, not to use it because it was kind of corny.

King was also told several times that he only had 5 minutes to speak. If that’s not enough, King was the last speaker to what was along day and as he took the stage, many in the crowd had already started to leave.. The main emphasis on King’s speech was on economic injustice with he key points raised around a bounced check that America had given Black people. He contrast the conditions of the day with the Emancipation Proclamation which had occurred 100 years earlier.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

Author Gary Younge

Author Gary Younge

Younge notes that King literally freestyles the I Have a Dream portion of his speech after his good friend, singer Mahalia Jackson who was standing behind him, did a call and response thing where she shouts ‘Tell em about the Dream Martin‘. That’s when King switched up.

In our interview Younge provides us with an array of political gems and the critical political backdrop of 1963 which leads up to the march and the speech. For example, he notes that the murder of Medger Evers in June of that year was weighing heavily on many people’s minds and served as a catalyst.

He notes that President John F Kennedy and his brother Attorney General Bobby Kennedy felt that Black folks were pushing too fast for their agenda. There was concern about how militant this march might become and thus great pressure was applied to tone things down.

Many do not know the federal government fearing there would be some who took to the stage and call for militant action, had a secret kill switch. If anything inflammatory was said, they could remotely turn off the mic and replace it with song from Mahalia Jackson.

Many do not know that Malcolm X who was highly critical of the organizers leading up to the event was actually in DC that day and had communicated to organizers he was there if needed. Malcolm felt that the essence of the march was going to be compromised. In fact the day that Medger Evers was assassinated, Malcolm debated march organizers James Farmer of CORE, Wyatt T Walker of SCLC along with Ebony Magazine editor Allan Morrison

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSdDPjourgY

Many also don’t know that women weren’t allowed to speak that day which underscored a major flaw in the Civil Rights Movement.

Bayard Rustin who was a communist and gay and a chief organizer of the March on Washington was pushed to the background

Bayard Rustin was a communist and gay and a chief organizer of the March on Washington was pushed to the background

At the beginning of the march, the press rolled up on the actual organizer and chief strategist of the march Bayard Rustin and started badgering him about the number of people who were expected to show up. The press was hell-bent on shrinking the numbers.. Sounds familiar?

The Press as well government leaders were concerned there would be violence at the March on Washington in ’63. Nope, there was no ratchet rap music. There weren’t people wearing sagging pants or hoodies. There wasn’t folks running around yelling ‘Thug life’ yet the police, national guard etc were all preparing for Black violence. This was in 1963.. Sounds familiar?

Many forget that no politician spoke that day.  President Obama will speak at the March on the 28th, which raises a number of issues including how his policies are direct opposition to what King was fighting for.

As many have pointed out 50 years ago all the main organizers were under surveillance by the federal government via Cointel-Pro. Today president Obama presides over a government that is literally spying on everybody at the march. Author/ scholar Jelani Cobb lays this irony out in his excellent essay; Obama, Surveillance and the Legacy of the March on Washington.

Also when King finished his speech, most folks including himself thought it was just ok.. Many did not see King hitting a home run out the park. In fact there were some who were critical, saying that King was Dreaming vs fighting for specific rights.. Younge explains in great detail how and why that speech was elevated to the status it has today, as one of the greatest speeches ever delivered..

Check out our interview below with Gary Younge and get the full behind the scenes story of Martin Luther King’s ‘Greatest Speech’.

Click the link below to download or listen to the HKR Intv

Click the link below to download or listen to the HKR Intv

hard knock radio_08-23-2013

As you listen to the interview we encourage folks to peep the text and listen to the actual interview..

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smEqnnklfYs

mlkI HAVE A DREAM” SPEECH The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr August 28, 1963

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

The Negro still is not free.

But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.

Time to rise from the dark valley of segregation.

And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice. We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.

Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning.

Those who hoped that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

Let us not drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.

We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. 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.

We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’

We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.

We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “for whites only.”

We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.

You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today my friends – so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

We hold these truths to be self-evident

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.’

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day, this will be the 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. Land where my father’s died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!’

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi – from every mountainside.

Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring – when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics – will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

I’ve posted this clip before and will do so again.. This is the famous Civil Rights Roundtable that took place the morning of the March on Washington. It features actors Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando and Charleston Heston along with writer James Baldwin.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdIHBod9nT4

 

Comments

  1. Word? #2

  2. Wish I was there

  3. cool

  4. John Sawyer says:

    I want to thank and congratulate you for your program on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, with Gary Younge. It was excellent. I missed ALL of Saturday’s TV coverage of the 50th anniversary of the march, and was disappointed when I couldn’t find any of it rebroadcast later in the evening (that I could tell), but I can’t imagine any of those programs did a better job than you and your guest did. He was clear and calmly enthusiastic, giving useful background information on the planning for the march and the speech itself, which you illustrated well with extended clips from it. I like that you asked your guest just the minimally right number of good questions. I appreciate your including so much of King’s speech–while the edited version which gets played most often still has a strong impact, its impact is really increased the more of it one hears. I got chills not only hearing it, but also listening to Younge so clearly describe things that happened that day.

    Your article here also gives a very good summary of the high points of the program. Thanks again.

  5. Content of character…by any means. 2 sayings to be used as guidance in every day life. Truest I ever heard.

  6. It was a historical day but his son is not a gifted speaker like his father….

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