- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

The speech was written in a hurry, with advisers writing two drafts and revisions continuing on the night before the March on Washington. But as he neared the end of his prepared text on Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King heard Mahalia Jackson shouting, “Tell them about the dream!”

For months, King had been preaching sermons that featured what was to become his most famous phrase. So he used it again as he improvised the conclusion of his speech to the historic civil rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial: “I have a dream.”

The 16-minute speech became the most famous of King’s career, and justly so, says Drew D. Hansen, author of a new book, “The Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation.”

At the same time, Mr. Hansen says, the fame of King’s speech 40 years ago has frozen his image at the midpoint of his journey, before the civil rights leader turned his focus on issues beyond segregation in the South.

“On the one hand, ‘I Have a Dream’ deserves all the attention and reverence it receives,” Mr. Hansen says. “But on the other hand, ‘I Have a Dream’ can be a way to focus on the first part of King’s career to the exclusion of the latter part of King’s career. …

“It is easier for people to remember King’s crusades against Jim Crow, because they were successful and they’re now matters of history. It is harder to remember King’s crusades against poverty and segregation in the North, because they were not as successful and the problems are still with us.”

Mr. Hansen followed his undergraduate days at Harvard University with a Rhodes Scholarship before getting his degree at Yale Law School. His book — he spent four years writing what he describes as an “homage” to King — was inspired by a Yale class on the civil rights movement.

“I started reflecting … about memories of the civil rights movement among people of my generation,” the 30-year-old Seattle lawyer says. “Our generation was born after the movement had won most of its greatest victories. And I realized that about the only thing my generation knew about the civil rights movement was ‘I Have a Dream.’”

Among younger people “there is a real lack of understanding and appreciation” for the history and accomplishments of the civil rights movement, Mr. Hansen says.

“My generation knows about the Montgomery [Ala.] bus boycott. We know about ‘I have a dream,’ but even incredibly important events from the civil rights movement, such as the Albany [Ga.] campaign or the [1965-66] Chicago campaign, are largely unknown to us.”

The latter two efforts are often overlooked because each was a failure, he says.

The Chicago campaign, beginning in the fall of 1965, drew intense white hostility when King focused on housing discrimination. “I’ve been in demonstrations all across the South,” King said. “But I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago.”

In the 1961-62 Albany campaign, the local police chief thwarted a nonviolent protest campaign by King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). By avoiding televised violence against the SCLC demonstrators, Police Chief Laurie Pritchett prevented the SCLC from reaping major publicity.

After nine months during which King was jailed three times, “the demonstrations in Albany ceased in late August 1962 without any tangible victories for the protesters,” Mr. Hansen writes.

But it was apparently amid the failures of Albany that King first began to use the “I have a dream” refrain in his speeches. There are differing accounts of when King first used the phrase. Some say he was inspired by Prathia Hall, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member, who used it during a September 1962 prayer service near Albany.

At any rate, by November 1962, King was regularly using variations of the famed “I Have a Dream” sequence — a “set piece,” Mr. Hansen calls it — in his sermons and speeches.

“The phrase ‘I have a dream’ was never in King’s prepared speech. It was something he inserted into the speech on the spot,” Mr. Hansen says.

In fact, another “set piece” from the speech — the “let freedom ring” passage — was also not part of King’s prepared text. King had been using some version of “let freedom ring” in his speeches since 1956.

In at least one previous speech, King acknowledged the source of his “let freedom ring” passage as a “great orator,” namely Chicago minister Archibald Carey, who used a similar passage in his address to the 1952 Republican National Convention.

Some have accused King of plagiarizing the Chicago minister’s speech, but Mr. Hansen says, “King completely transformed this material. If you compare Carey’s set piece with King’s set piece, King’s is very different and, I would argue, a better and more effective version. … King’s version is so much more rhythmic; the imagery is so much more beautiful, that he really did transform it into his own work.”

One sentence of the “I Have a Dream” speech has been repeatedly invoked in arguments against racial quotas and preferences: “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.”

But Mr. Hansen says, “The evidence from King’s speeches and writings are that he probably would have supported some forms of affirmative action.”

He cites testimony to a federal commission in 1967, in which King said the United States “must incorporate in its planning some compensatory consideration for the handicaps [black people have] inherited from the past.”

While the “I Have a Dream” speech is chiefly recalled as condemning discrimination in the South, Mr. Hansen says, “King’s vision in 1963 was very much of economic justice as much it was an end to Jim Crow.”

He notes that the full title of the 1963 event was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” and that one of its key organizers was labor activist A. Philip Randolph. And King’s speech invoked several economic and political goals beyond an end to segregation.

“We remember that speech very much today as a speech about Jim Crow in the South, but King’s visions even at that time were national in scope,” Mr. Hansen says.

“You see that in his line about black Americans languishing ‘on a lonely island of poverty,’ his statement that, ‘we cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,’ and his line, ‘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.’”

When he first had the idea of writing a book about the speech, Mr. Hansen says, he was surprised to find that no previous historian had written such a book.

“It did surprise me,” he says. “It seemed like a great opportunity, really, to help people rediscover the speech.”

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