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

By Sundquist, Eric J. | Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.