King's Fiery Speech Rarely Heard

Malik Whitfield and Jordan Lucas visit the spot where King gave his speech in 1963.
Malik Whitfield and Jordan Lucas visit the spot where King gave his speech in 1963. (By Win Mcnamee -- Getty Images)
By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

It is the time of year when students are taught about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, so passionately delivered that his call for freedom changed U.S. history. Once heard, it is impossible to forget.

But many students won't get to hear it -- and most who do will hear only snippets, educators and historians said. And that, they said, is affecting the legacy of the preeminent civil rights leader, whose life will be honored tomorrow with an annual federal holiday.

"It lessens the historical saliency of King for younger kids," said Robert Brown, assistant dean of undergraduate education at Emory University in Atlanta who specializes in African American politics. "It is one thing to read King and another to see him. Hearing him is so much more powerful than reading it."

H. Patrick Swygert, president of Howard University, heard King on the Mall in Washington at the end of a day of marching and speeches in 1963. Tired listeners were respectful at the beginning, he said, but began to stir at the rhythm of King's words, the intensity of his voice and the power of the message, which was not just a description of the condition of blacks in America but a vision of something better.

"It is doubly sad for people today who do not hear the speech," Swygert said. "It certainly was one of the great moments of American oratory. But young people today don't often hear the message of possibility, and the second half of the speech was all about possibility."

All of King's speeches and papers are owned by his family, which has gone to court several times since the 1990s to protect its copyright; King obtained rights to his most famous speech a month after he gave it. Now, those who want to hear or use the speech in its entirety must buy a copy sanctioned by the King family, which receives the proceeds.

The King family is not alone in its decision to control the use of his work. Former president Richard M. Nixon sold his papers to the U.S. government for $18 million. The Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story sold their papers to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin for $5 million.

But President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address is in the public domain. And like Kennedy, King gave one of history's seminal speeches. Delivered Aug. 28, 1963, before more than 200,000 people, the speech helped change the minds of U.S. policymakers who had been resisting calls for changing laws that permitted segregation.

Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute and a history professor at Stanford University, said the institute "would like to make it as widely available as possible. However, I respect the King family's point of view that this is private property and there has to be a balancing of the public need versus the family need."

When King was killed, his family was left without much money. The family earns income from licensing his image and charging fees for the use of his speeches. Some of his papers are free for researchers to look through. The King family did not respond to queries for this article.

Joseph Beck, an attorney for the King family and an expert in intellectual property rights, said, "The King family has always supported providing access to the speech and to the video for educational purchases and encourages interested persons to contact the King Center in Atlanta." According to the family's Web site, videotapes and audiotapes of the speech can be purchased for $10, but one copy often is not enough for an entire school, and many schools don't know what materials are available.

Many schools use the text -- often taken in violation of the copyright from the Internet. The King family, however, wants teachers to use the speech and has not pursued legal action against educators, Carson said.

Critics of the King family's decision not to put the speech in the public domain say the poorest children are the most deprived.

"The more elite the institution, the easier it is to pay the mandatory fee," said David J. Garrow, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference" and now a history professor at Cambridge University.

"So, to use a King phrase, 'the least of these,' I'll say that the least of these among schools and students are those who cannot afford the least access to his teachings," he said.

Some schools have obtained video featuring the stirring climax of King's heralded speech. Avi Edelman, 16, a junior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, said he studied the entire written text in eighth grade but heard only portions. Even those few moments moved him, he said.

"When you read it, you can study Dr. King's use of literary techniques. He uses repetition. He uses metaphor. But when you hear it, you get the feeling of everything the civil rights movement embodied," he said.

Karen Fensterstock, 17, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, said hearing the whole speech provides a better understanding of race relations in the United States.

"It makes you look back and think about the time period where segregation was such that a speech like that had to be made, with that conviction and power," she said. "You take a step back and really reevaluate a lot of things.

Paula Young Shelton is a first-grade teacher at the private Georgetown Day School in the District and knew King personally, attended his funeral and remembered how affecting his voice could be. At her school, all first-graders watch the entire speech from a purchased video and learn different parts of it.

"I think it should be in the public domain," Shelton said. "The way he moved people with his voice was amazing."

Although first-graders don't know all the words, she said, "they can understand the message when they hear the speech."

Edoardo Pisoni, 10, saw the speech three years ago in Shelton's class and can still quote from it. He said it probably would not have affected him the same if anyone else had simply read the speech to him.

"It wouldn't have the heart."

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