A Dream Obscured
Understanding Martin Luther King Jr. and his most famous speech.

Reviewed by Clay Risen
Sunday, February 15, 2009


By Eric J. Sundquist

Yale Univ. 295 pp. $26


Reflections on My Life, My Family, and My Faith

By Christine King Farris

Atria. 257 pp. $25

Historians routinely rank Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" address, delivered at the culmination of the 1963 March on Washington, as one of the best speeches in American rhetoric. It is certainly among the most famous: A National Endowment for the Humanities study found that more high school seniors could identify the source of "I have a dream" than "Four score and seven years ago" or "When in the course of human events."

But what, exactly, was that dream? As UCLA English professor Eric J. Sundquist explains in King's Dream, the great preacher's words are a political Rorschach test, having been clipped into sound bites and re-appropriated in support of everything from affirmative action to the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. In response, Sundquist presents an exegesis of King's speech, arguing that "notwithstanding the fact that he later spoke in a more radical voice, one can find in the Dream speech a nearly perfect lens through which to see King's lifelong philosophy."

Each chapter of Sundquist's intelligent and important book focuses on one of several themes in the speech, unpacking the sources of the words and placing them within a broader civil rights context. His last chapter, "Not by the Color of Their Skin," is one of the most incisive analyses of the affirmative action debate I have ever read.

King was a great speaker, and "I Have a Dream" is one of his best speeches, but it does no disservice to King to argue that it is not, in fact, a "perfect lens" for understanding his "lifelong philosophy." He was both more militant and more adamantly pacifist than his words at the Lincoln Memorial suggest; a large part of what he said -- including the six iterations of his famous dream -- veered from his prepared text.

King was, among his many talents, an early master at manipulating television, and he delivered his speech knowing that a forceful but measured tone would pay countless dividends. "Carefully crafted, perfectly modulated, King's performance at the March on Washington struck a precarious balance between insistence and reassurance," Sundquist writes. King originally had called for sit-ins and other disruptive protests around the capital, however, only to be convinced by Stanley Levinson and other march organizers that a more moderate showing would play better on TV.

Earlier that year, King had delivered a decidedly more militant speech during the March on Detroit. "The price that this nation must pay for the continued oppression and exploitation of the Negro or any other minority group is the price of its own destruction," King had said. Stokely Carmichael couldn't have put it better.

But King's moderation at the March on Washington was about more than mere posturing. Indeed, Sundquist's desire to make "I Have a Dream" the sine qua non of Kingism overlooks King's longstanding, deeply held reservations about the capitalist system and the American military. As his sister Christine King Farris makes clear in her uneven but touching new memoir, Through It All, "At times, there seems to be a concerted effort to cast him as simply a nonthreatening, idle dreamer and pacifist concerned only with questions of integration and civil rights. In my opinion no characterization could be further from the truth."

Despite Farris's proximity to King -- she not only grew up with him but later helped found and manage the King Center in Atlanta -- she has surprisingly little new to say about her brother. Most of the details she calls "unknown" are already laid out in the expansive biographies America in the King Years, by Taylor Branch, and Bearing the Cross, by David Garrow. She does, however, give a moving account of the King family, particularly the murder of King's mother in 1974 when a crazed gunman opened fire during a service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King's father preached.

Toward the end of King's life, as he grew more willing to publicize his radical views, he seemed ashamed that he had held them back for so long. When he finally vented his concerns about American foreign policy, in his April 4, 1967, address at Riverside Church in Manhattan, he noted that he had been "moved to break the betrayal of my own silences." These are not the words of a recent convert to anti-militarism, and yet they are nowhere present in "I Have a Dream."

And while King is rightly remembered for winning political equality for African Americans, he was equally committed to expanding economic equality. The FBI recorded him ranking his goals for the March: While desegregation of public facilities came first, jobs came second, ahead of access to the voting booth. Nor did King mean only jobs for African Americans. As he made clear in his 1965 speech capping the Selma-to-Montgomery march, he believed Jim Crow was largely the work of a pernicious upper class that sought to divide blacks from working-class whites. The only solution to entrenched racism, he concluded, was to strike at the economic structures that relied on racial animosity to undermine class solidarity.

And, of course, King's last efforts were the Poor People's Campaign, which drew the economically disadvantaged of all races to Washington, and his support of the Memphis garbage workers' strike, which fatefully placed him in the Bluff City on April 4, 1968.

Sundquist's book is a commendable assessment of an historic speech. But as an attempt to capture the mind of Martin Luther King, it comes dangerously close to reification, to freezing in time what was in fact a wide-ranging, ever-evolving personal philosophy. King was a great man, and he can never be captured in a single speech -- no matter how eloquent his words. ยท

Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and the author of "A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination."

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