The 'I Have a Dream Speech' is the oration of the century

Forty years ago next Thursday, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his most famous speech. It has been called the best speech of the 20th century. I covered it as the Washington correspondent for his hometown newspaper, the Atlanta Constitution. I wrote a 32-paragraph story which was largely focused on the details of the march itself and the full cast of speakers. I quoted only two sentences of King's remarks; neither was from that now-immortal litany of hopes that gave his remarks a name: "The I-Have-a-Dream Speech."

I was not alone. Nor was I wrong. "For many reporters (as well as many of the marchers), the March on Washington itself was as much of a marvel as King's speech," writes Drew D. Hansen in his marvelous new book The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation (Ecco, 288 pages, $23.95).


Hansen notes, for instance, that Norman Mailer, who covered the event for Esquire, wrote that King's speech and the others were anticlimactic to the actual march by an estimated 200,000 people from around the nation, mostly black, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.

That so many people could peaceably assemble and make a dignified, intelligent, persuasive claim for a redress of their extreme grievances without trouble was seriously doubted. Some recent civil-rights protests had ended in violence. Thirty-one years earlier, when veterans marched to Washington demanding promised bonuses, the Army roughly dispersed them. District of Columbia police in 1963 made plans based on the assumption that rioting or clashes with counter-demonstrators was possible.


But that didn't happen. So couldn't it be said that the peaceful, upbeat event, particularly King's speech, justified the risk and led to change? Yes and no. Public opinion propelled in part by the event led to landmark civil-rights laws in 1964, 1965 and 1968. But as Hansen puts it, "Between 1963 and 1968, few people spent substantial time talking or thinking about what King had said at the march." Immortality built slowly over the coming decades.

I recently reviewed the Aug. 29, 1963, Constitution, Atlanta Journal, The Sun, Washington Post and New York Times and Associated Press and United Press stories used by many newspapers. There was little or no quoting from the "dream" sequence, except in the Times, which had a page one "news analysis" lauding and quoting King's speech, and a lead story (by ex-Sunpapers hand E.W. Kenworthy) that devoted seven paragraphs to King's dreams.

Hansen examines the speech both as historian and rhetorician. The historian succinctly sets the scene of the white South's imposed racial inequality that preceded what would be the biggest Washington rally to that time. He does a good job, but to get the true temper of the times, a lot more detail is needed.

For that there are Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963 and Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1963-1973 (edited by Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Bill Kovach, Carol Polsgrove, Library of America, 996 and 986 pages respectively, $40 each). They were published earlier this year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington.

They provide a disheartening look at a country in which otherwise decent white men and women ignored, accepted, enforced or participated in physical, economic and emotional violence directed at blacks.

The reporting (often commentary) is culled from newspapers and magazines of general circulation, small specialized publications and books. It ranges from good to excellent. But the accumulated writings over those three fateful decades are lopsidedly from non-Southern publications. The drama of the fight for civil rights played from Boston to Los Angeles and in between, and a few articles in the books reflect that. But for the most part the battlefield was the South, and this choice of dispatches from that front portrays a civil-rights war as seen or imagined from the perspective of New York and its intellectual environs.

Most of the Southerners who would eventually live with the success or failure of the civil-rights movement were informed mostly by what they read in their own newspapers, from editorialists, reporters and local political, religious, civic and civil rights leaders making the news. They didn't read what was being printed in the New York Times, Republic, Village Voice, etc.

That is not to belittle the work of journalists at such publications. The Times' Claude Sitton was a great reporter, not to mention a wise tutor to "parachuting" reporters dropping in some hot spot for a day or two. He was Southern-born, based in Atlanta in the crucial years 1958-1964. But he reported to editors in New York, who decided how his stories would be presented.


Sitton and other Times writers are in Reporting Civil Rights 21 times by my count. Articles by my favorite journalist, Murray Kempton, a born and raised Baltimorean (and onetime copy boy for H.L. Mencken) who became a Manhattanite, appear seven times. Most of his works are from the New York Post. Compare that to 10 pieces total from all Southern papers. There are more than that from The Nation alone. That very liberal New York magazine's total circulation in the South was probably not even in the high two figures.

Another flaw in the books is that the editors chose only pro-civil-rights commentary (and some reporting). That denies readers a sense of public opinion in the South at the time. A few columns from the likes of, say, the segregationist Richmond columnist James J. Kilpatrick and like-minded Southern journalists would show readers what civil-rights proponents were up against. Anti-civil-rights journalism contributed to the white resistance, and that important part of the story is missing.

There weren't many liberal supporters of the civil-rights movement in the South's principal newspapers. But the liberals who did exist tempered the resistance, and they played a major role in the fact that when the civil-rights movement finally overcame its opponents, most white Southerners accepted, however grudgingly, the laws and the changes they brought. These journalists, too, deserved a place in these books.

Hansen's rhetorical analysis is the best part of his book. He gives readers a line-by-line comparison of early draft, final draft and as-delivered versions of "the speech that inspired a nation." He explains the nature of black Southern preaching and King's imaginative use of biblical metaphor, his style and his brilliance of delivery.

King used repetition throughout the speech to prepare for the "dream" sequence, which though an ad lib not in his text was apparently on his mind. Hansen quotes other versions of the dream theme from previous speeches.

Before saying "I have a dream that . . ." in seven consecutive passages, King had begun three sentences with "Now is the time to . . . ."; four consecutive times he began a sentence with "We cannot [or never can] be satisfied as long as . . . ."


After "dream," he reached the just-as-inspiring crescendo that "dream" has overshadowed: 10 ad-lib phrases or sentences beginning "let freedom ring from ... " state landscape after state landscape, effectively welding a generalized love of country to what had been up to that point a personalized sermon.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew his speech would be a great one. On its eve, he told an aide he wanted to deliver "sort of a Gettysburg address." Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, he boldly invited the comparison by beginning "Fivescore years ago . . . ."

Was his speech comparable to what is widely accepted as the greatest oration in American history? Reading it start to finish recently for the first time in at least a decade, I felt a chill up my spine. Then, watching a grainy black-and-white video of King delivering it, I felt my eyes tear up.

It wasn't the news of the day when he delivered it, but with age it has certainly become the speech of the last century.

Maybe of the last two centuries.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired editorial writer for The Sun. He is the author of biographies of Sen. Edmund Muskie, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Franklin Roosevelt.