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A Dream Obscured

Understanding Martin Luther King Jr. and his most famous speech.

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Reviewed by Clay Risen
Sunday, February 15, 2009; Page BW08


By Eric J. Sundquist

This Story

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.

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