Magazine article The Christian Century

Our Greatest Speech

Magazine article The Christian Century

Our Greatest Speech

Article excerpt

FORTY YEARS AGO on a sweltering August day in Washington, the Baptist preacher and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the defining speech of his generation and the most famous oration of the 20th century. Writing in the New York Times the next day, James Reston promptly recognized King's achievement and predicted, "It will be a long time before [Washington] forgets the melodious and melancholy voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. crying out his dreams to the multitude."

That voice has now become an American institution. And as familiarity with the speech fades to annual invocations of the "Dream," fading with it is the civic memory of King's uncompromising critique of the injustice that made the dream necessary.

Critics like Malcolm X unfairly characterized King's performance as a feel-good exercise designed for white consumption. After all, it was only a dream with no policy demands attached. But there was nothing soft or accommodating about the speech. The greater part of it was devoted to the Negro's experience of pain, broken promises, and now rising rage in a country about which Langston Hughes once wrote, "O yes / I say it plain, / America never was America to me."

Within seconds of beginning, King was echoing Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois and other militant intellectuals when he characterized the Negro as an "exile" in his own land. The first half of the address, which King read in a stern and businesslike manner, resembles a bill of particulars with which the Old Testament prophets might have indicted a wayward and unjust nation. He repeatedly intones "We will not be satisfied," a refrain doubtless prompted by the ubiquitous white question of the day, "When will you people be satisfied?" He promises that Negroes will never be satisfied as long as they are victims of police brutality or can't stay in a decent motel along the highway. He closes this portion of the speech by merging his complaints with those of the ancient prophet who condemned the rich for cheating small farmers: "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

The King of 1963 was the same King who in 1967 and 1968 would accuse the U.S. of genocide at home and abroad, and suggest that blacks might want to skip the upcoming bicentennial celebrations. In the last years of his life, he was discovering not only the resiliency of racism but its uncanny ability to morph, as we would say today, into economic and military forms.

The reason it is difficult to hear King's own rage in his indictments has to do with the poetic figures in which he clothed them. He was burdened with the preacher's stigmatic habit of casting local injustices in the light of transcendent truths. The issue was never simply police brutality or segregated housing in the raw, but also, as in this speech, "the quicksands of racial injustice" and "the desolate valley of segregation." By assailing the nation's ills in lovely metaphors, his critics claimed, he was softening his prophetic blows. You could enjoy a King speech.

King allowed his rhetoric to call attention to itself for a strategic reason. The beauty of his speeches was meant not to glorify the speaker but to elevate the cause. Aristotle said, "A free man should not talk like a slave. …

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