When readers of the daily newspaper picked up their copy, they found only the briefest mention of the speech. Even to find it reported at all required that they wade through columns of verbiage about other featured speakers and events at the ceremony. In the news judgment of the day, the speech was deemed insignificant.
The occasion was the dedication of the battlefield cemetery grounds at Gettysburg, Pa., and the speaker was Abraham Lincoln. One hundred twenty years later, the simple majesty and quiet eloquence of what came to be known as "the Gettysburg Address" had entered the English language and, more than any other utterance in our history, the American spirit.
In its entirety, it numbered fewer than 300 words and occupied only a few inches of space in the paper.
Twenty years ago, on the occasion of another great event and oration in front of Lincoln's memorial here, this newspaper's final edition did not even print the text of what the major speaker had said that day. Nor did its lead story, beginning on page 1 and continuing on page 13, quote a single word he said.
The end of that story listed the names of all those who spoke and concluded with the last name, "the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."
It was the first mention of his name in that day's paper. In a story on an adjoining page, halfway down, his name appeared again. It was noted that he had used the refrain "I have a dream" in his remarks about brotherhood.
So much for relative news values a century apart on similarly historic occasions.
Not surprisingly, but disappointingly nonetheless, a vaguely unpleasant tone surrounds some of the maneuvering over plans to commemorate next weekend what now is known as King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The featured speakers are grumbling over their order and allotted time and, as the event approaches, an unnecessary amount of what our president calls "hoopla and hype" emanates from the planners.
In the press kit, for instance, a statement under the name of King's widow, Coretta Scott King, is not content merely to describe Aug. 28, 1963, as "one of the most important days in the history of the United States of America." It also was, we are told, "one of the most critical days in the history of the world."
Similarly, in an attempt to recapture that moment for today's Americans, her statement unfortunately misstates some of the history of that time. After saying that "in 1963, the issues were clear and visible," she went on to recall that: "At the same time, we were fighting and dying in the Vietnam war which was fast becoming an outrage to a great number of American people. Black people disproportionately outnumbered those in the frontline of that war. Yet black people could not vote in every state in the Union."
In fact, at that point Vietnam was a name barely known to most Americans. We then had about 16,000 advisers in Vietnam, and President Kennedy was talking about recalling a thousand of them by the end of that year. No U.S. combat units had been dispatched there, nor would they be for two more years. The B52 bombing runs from Guam and the strikes on aerial targets in North Vietnam also were two years away.
King himself didn't begin to turn his attention to the gathering tragedy in Vietnam until after his civil rights movement had peaked in Selma in the spring of 1965. By then, the new landing docks along the South Vietnam shoreline were starting to handle a massive flow of American troops and arms, and the U.S. units were beginning to move beyond the coastal enclaves, through the elephant grass and out into the countryside on search-and-destroy missions.
The point is not churlishly to correct the record nor to carp about some of the surface trappings surrounding this anniversary. The point is to try to keep extraneous matters from detracting from what King did and said that day. That needs no embelishment. Its place in history is secure.
There are, apparently, two versions of King's march-on-Washington speech. One, his prepared text, reads strangely flat. It is filled with rhetorical devices and bears no reference to dreams, his or America's.
The other, as delivered, and apparently with extraordinary extemporaneous touches, has a cadence and a building dramatic quality that leap from the printed page. It is magnificent even if no memory exists of King's superb style of deliv- ery.
Like Lincoln's address, its simplicity makes it timeless. It is old-fashioned and unashamedly patriotic. It appeals to the best in people, not the worst. It is broad in scope, generous in spirit and universal in tone. It speaks to the hearts of all Americans, not just black Americans or white Americans. It bears no trace of demagoguery, or any sense of racial or religious superiority. It is entirely positive in purpose.
His dream was the oldest of American dreams: freedom and equality for all, the belief that through common efforts and common ideals tomorrow will be better than today.
And it remains as valuable to ponder today as it was then.
In that sense, and perhaps to remedy an old omission, here are some of the things that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that day:
"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
"I have a dream today! . . . .
"And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God's children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the Negro spiritual: 'Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.' "
In the 20 years since King spoke those words in Washington, much of his dream has been realized, but then much has not.