Today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous speech, known as “I Have a Dream.” It deserves careful consideration, because it is widely regarded as the most important speech by a private citizen in American history.
The general public does not understand why that speech worked. The general public knows almost nothing about the content of the speech. The average person has never gone to YouTube and listened to it even once, let alone several times. I have listened to it very carefully. I regard it as a rhetorical masterpiece.
Let me rephrase that. I regard the final third of the speech as a rhetorical masterpiece. There is a reason for this. It was ad libbed. It is the most famous ad libbed speech in American history.
THE WRITTEN SPEECH
There are several accounts of how the speech was written. I am using the account written by Clarence B Jones, King’s associate, who was a lawyer. He is the author of a 2011 book on the speech: Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation. Jones and King had worked together on speech-crafting before. One of the themes which King had used before had been recommended by Jones. This was the idea of a promissory note. It was a promissory note supposedly issued by Abraham Lincoln by the Emancipation Proclamation. The theme of the speech was this: the United States government in 1963 had not delivered on that 1863 note. In other words, with respect to Lincoln’s promissory note, it was a bad check. It had bounced repeatedly.
This was historically silly. Lincoln had issued no such note. But King appealed back to Jefferson’s “All men are created equal.” He invoked that as a promissory note. The fact that the Declaration of Independence never had any legal standing was beside the point. King was writing a speech, not an historical treatise. The Declaration was highly rhetorical. So was King’s speech.
He did not use the language of a bounced check, even though more of his listeners that day would have understood the reference. He spoke of a promissory note. This was the language of a lawyer. That is because it was written by a lawyer. Jones prides himself in being part of that process, although he does not claim that he was exclusively responsible for the final version. But there is no doubt that he was the source of that metaphor.
This metaphor was judicially clever. But it was not moving. People do not dedicate their lives to a cause on the basis of running a promissory note through the bank again, hoping that the account will have sufficient funds this time.
The first two-thirds of the speech was essentially a lawyer’s brief. It was delivered by a minister, a man who had made his reputation by being an eloquent minister speaking on civil and political issues. Why did he think that a lawyer’s brief would work in front of the largest gathering that had ever assembled in Washington D.C., and one of the most emotionally moving demonstrations in history? There were 250,000 people there. The largest assembly before that was about 47,000, the Bonus Army of 1932, in the Great Depression. It was a fifth the size. Also, the army under Douglas McArthur had run the Bonus Army out of town, and burned down their tents.
Oddly enough, there was a perfectly good biblical justification for this lawyer’s brief. In terms of the message of the Old Testament prophets, a lawyer’s brief was appropriate. The lawyers of the Old Testament were the prophets, and they had delivered a series of covenant lawsuits against the nation of Israel and the nation of Judah. Their targets were primarily the leaders, but they also included the whole society. These were legal briefs. So, there was a legitimate tradition behind the use of such language. But it is not common language in ecclesiastical circles. Nevertheless, we do not remember this speech as the promissory note speech. Yet that was the metaphorical heart of the original speech.
Everyone knew King was the headliner. That was why they had him speak last. This was to be the culmination of the march. This was to be the high point of the march. This was to leave a legacy. It did leave a legacy, but it was not the legacy of Jones and King who, the night before, had put the speech into its final form.
Jones describes what happened next. This should be in every textbook account of the speech. Yet it is not well known, although it has received some attention this year.
Because on the Lincoln Memorial steps, Martin, who had made his way into roughly the seventh paragraph of the speech I’d handed in, paused after saying, “We cannot turn back.” This alone was nothing unusual. The hesitations and breaks were all part of his oratory process, the rhythms he had mastered at the pulpit. Yet in this split second of silence, something historic and unexpected happened. Into that breach, Mahalia Jackson shouted to him from the speakers and organizers stand. She called out, “Tell ’em about the ‘Dream,’ Martin, tell ’em about the `Dream!'” Not many people heard her.But I did.
And so did Martin. (pp. 111-12)
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)