It was a short speech. It stopped short of 1,600 words – a point at which many public figures who have far less to say are just getting warmed up. But in that short span of words the Rev. Martin Luther King packed more power than in all the hate of all the bigots arrayed against him.
What made King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the March on Washington 50 years ago today, so mighty? His style of oratory, no doubt. It is hard to read the text now without hearing the words roll through your mind on the waves of his unmistakable cadence. But many ministers speak in similar cadences today, in Sunday sermons that are forgotten by noon.
King also possessed the great advantage of having justice on his side. The same cannot be said of certain other mesmerizing orators – Hitler comes most immediately to mind – which makes their oratory sound repugnant, not compelling.
King also knew how to make use of imagery – although, if one is being completely candid, he did lay it on a little thick. The “Dream” speech is full of joyous daybreaks and long nights of captivity, of lonely islands of poverty and vast oceans of prosperity, of quicksands of racial injustice and solid rocks of brotherhood, of sweltering summers of discontent and invigorating autumns of freedom, of vaults of opportunity and valleys of despair, of palaces of justice and stones of hope. It makes you wonder a bit if he could order a cup of coffee without pouring the soothing nectar of cow’s milk into the dark and bitter vat of Folger’s.
But then, there have been many other flowery speakers too – and few of them uttered any words that lasted longer than the breath they took to speak them.
Of course, King delivered his speech at a profound historical moment. He could have read his shopping list and we would still remember it today.
And yet there is something about the Dream speech that transcends all of those factors put together. That magnificent speech – part extemporaneous – compelled assent in 1963, just as it compels assent today.
It did so because, in addition to everything else, King did not lecture America as though apart from and superior to it – though he certainly would have been justified in doing so. The stupid, cruel, unthinking bigotry endured by African-Americans would have justified a primal scream of pain and rage, never mind a finger-wagging lecture from the moral mountaintop.
But King delivered neither. Nor did he try to convert those hostile to the cause of civil rights to notions they found foreign. Instead, King appealed to natural law, and to the principles his opponents held most dear.
He had come, he said, to cash a promissory note written by the Founders. And everyone – in every civilization and throughout every age – has always known a promise must be kept. The duty to keep a promise is so basic, so obvious, that even little children see it.
Keeping a promise is not just a question of duty. It is also a question of honor. And the demands of honor weighed heavy in the hearts of the South. “What is life without honor?” asked Stonewall Jackson. Another Southern Jackson – Andrew – urged “every good citizen” to “make his country’s honor his own.” The nation’s honor, King implied, was now at stake. Would it keep the promise it had made?
Moreover, King did not ask America to become something it was not; he asked America to become something it had always meant to be. He dreamed, he said, not that the country would turn its back on its creed, but that it would “rise up and live out the true meaning.” This presented opponents and fence-sitters with a simple choice: Did they believe in America’s creedal values, or not? King spoke as a defender of the country’s catechism. Would they also defend it – or embrace apostasy?
King spoke of nonviolence – a sharp contrast to the dogs and fire hoses wielded by the gangsters who called themselves the government in 1963.
And he spoke, above all, of freedom – the cause that inspired the Revolution.
The March on Washington addressed other causes, too: Desegregation. The minimum wage. Public works. But it was freedom – America’s most cherished value and her most glorious promise – to which King devoted his final, loftiest minutes. And that is what made the speech so powerful, too. Because freedom is such a simple concept.
Freedom needs no lengthy explanation. It needs no five-year plan, or 10-point agenda, or 30-percent tax, or 200-person bureaucracy. Freedom asks for none of those things. In fact, it doesn’t ask for anything – except to be left in peace.
Let freedom ring, King said. It was all he needed to say.