King's "Dream"-Whose Country 'Tis of Thee?

By Sundquist, Eric J. | Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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King's "Dream"-Whose Country 'Tis of Thee?


Sundquist, Eric J., Michigan Quarterly Review


On the evening of June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered a televised speech on civil rights. He spoke forcefully, if belatedly, of a moral issue "as old as the scriptures and as dear as the American Constitution." Late that night, as he returned home from his work as Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, Medgar Evers was shot and killed by Byron De La Beckwith, an avowed white supremacist who would not be brought to justice until 1994. At a memorial rally held the day after her husband's murder, Myrlie Evers addressed an angry audience who had every reason to seek vengeance, but she pleaded with them to persist in the path of nonviolence-to love, not hate. Once she finished speaking, recalled Urban League president Whitney Young, the crowd stood and spontaneously sang "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." In Young's view, the singing expressed "deeply felt faith in a country by a people who have had so little reason to keep alive such a belief. They said to America, 'We believe in you.'"

Young's account was published in 1964, and it is very likely that his memory of this mournful tribute to Medgar Evers, heard by few, was strongly colored by his memory of the words heard by thousands-and subsequently heard and read by millions more-that launched the famous peroration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963:

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 . . . 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 fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!"

Notwithstanding King's triumphs in Birmingham and Washington, as well as the landmark civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965, faith in the "sweet land of liberty" was by no means shared by all African Americans. Reacting to what he considered Whitney Young's delusion, Addison Gayle, Jr. ranked him high among latter-day Booker T. Washingtons and looked for inspiration instead to the slave rebel Nat Turner, in whose messianic uprising he found an antidote to "the absurd and nonsensical philosophy of Martin Luther King" that, as he saw it, had cost Medgar Evers his life.

Whether in explicit mockery of King's speech or not, there has been no shortage of counterexamples to his apparent endorsement of the patriotic sentiments of the song titled "America," but also known to many simply by its first line. "You have to be able to laugh to stand up and sing, 'My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,'" insisted Malcolm X. "That's a joke. And if you don't laugh at it, it'll crack you up." Amiri Baraka inserted the lyrics into his 1964 play The Slave, accompanied by the stage direction: "Screams off key like drunken opera singer," while the jazz musician Charles Mingue once donned an oversized sombrero to sing a satiric version of "America" in which its second line became "sweet land of slavery." And just this year, the musician Mos Def, performing a program of jazz, standards, and hip-hop at Lincoln Center, riffed on "America" by emphatically repeating the line "Land where my fathers died," before drifting into "The StarSpangled Banner," the implication being that his fathers died not as patriots but as slaves.

King, of course, was nobody's fool, and he spoke not of present-day realities but of a day still to come when "all of God's children will be able to sing . . . 'My country 'tis of thee.' " King knew as well as anyone the pain and sorrow that underlay any African American's faith in such words. One need think only of an incident that had already brought his family close to the fate of Medgar Evers. While King was waiting to address a meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association during the 1956 bus boycott, his home was bombed and his wife and infant daughter barely escaped injury.

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