Can Any Speech Today Equal King’s “˜Dream’?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, gestures during his "I Have a Dream" speech as he addresses thousands of civil rights supporters gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963.  Actor-singer Sammy Davis Jr. can be seen at extreme right, bottom.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
Aug. 22, 2013, 1:36 p.m.

Fifty years ago, Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. de­livered an ad­dress that has ar­gu­ably be­come the most fam­ous speech giv­en in Amer­ica, and cer­tainly in Wash­ing­ton.

Only about 1 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans are un­fa­mil­i­ar with the “I Have a Dream” speech, ac­cord­ing to a 2011 Wash­ing­ton Post poll. It has been in­voked count­less times by every­one from preach­ers to politi­cians, and not just on the left. At con­ser­vat­ive com­ment­at­or Glenn Beck’s 2010 rally, sev­er­al speak­ers made ref­er­ence to King’s vis­ion of free­dom.

And so, as the 50-year an­niversary ap­proaches next week, it begs a ques­tion: Can any speech today have the same kind of im­pact?

“People be­moan the loss of oratory be­cause they look around them and see the in­con­sequen­tial and ram­bling,” said Steph­en Lu­cas, a Uni­versity of Wis­con­sin pro­fess­or spe­cial­iz­ing in rhet­or­ic, polit­ics, and cul­ture. “In pos­ter­ity, the jew­els be­gin to stand out.”

While there is no ma­gic for­mula, a few factors do help ex­plain the im­pact of King’s speech and what might be learned from it, ex­perts say. For starters, it was de­livered by a cha­ris­mat­ic lead­er and it co­in­cided with a pivotal mo­ment in his­tory. The con­tent of the speech is also time­less in many ways, speak­ing to a uni­ver­sal concept at the heart of Amer­ica.

“It can mean so many dif­fer­ent things to so many dif­fer­ent people,” said Gary Younge, au­thor of the book The Speech: The Story Be­hind Luth­er King Jr.’s Dream. “It’s a dream deeply rooted in the Amer­ic­an dream. It’s a deeply pat­ri­ot­ic speech. He bangs every drum…. Every­body can get something out of that speech, if they want to.”

Vor­ris Nun­ley, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or of Eng­lish spe­cial­iz­ing in rhet­or­ic at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (River­side), says that a speech giv­en today could have the same kind of long-last­ing im­pact. “But that per­son would have to tap in­to a lar­ger Amer­ic­an con­cerns, that per­son would have to mo­bil­ize that trope in a way that every­one can un­der­stand,” he said.

King’s dream — the Amer­ic­an dream — con­nec­ted widely. “One of the reas­ons why that speech works so well is that it’s con­nec­ted to a sense of Amer­ic­an iden­tity that began when the pil­grims left to New Eng­land,” Nun­ley said. Per­haps it is no mys­tery that young un­doc­u­mented res­id­ents pur­su­ing a path to U.S. cit­izen­ship have dubbed them­selves “dream­ers.”

Of course, King’s speech may also mean dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent people. When asked in The Wash­ing­ton Post poll wheth­er the U.S. has ful­filled the vis­ion King out­lined, blacks and whites mostly agreed; 56 per­cent of blacks and 57 per­cent of whites said the coun­try has not. That’s not­able be­cause on oth­er ques­tions of ra­cial equity, there is a wide gap between opin­ions of whites and blacks. For ex­ample, in a Pew poll re­leased this week, 79 per­cent of black re­spond­ents said “a lot” more pro­gress needs to be made to achieve ra­cial equal­ity, com­pared with 44 per­cent of white re­spond­ents.

“They must be hear­ing dif­fer­ent things,” in King’s speech, Younge said.

Per­haps most im­port­antly, the im­pact of the speech wasn’t felt un­til long after King stood on the steps of the Lin­coln Me­mori­al. In the years fol­low­ing the ad­dress, King’s pop­ular­ity dropped as he took up causes re­lated to poverty and the Vi­et­nam War. His as­sas­sin­a­tion brought the speech — which was the first time many Amer­ic­ans heard him speak — back in­to view as a way to me­mori­al­ize him.

“Everything came to­geth­er in terms of the oc­ca­sion, set­ting, is­sue, lan­guage of the speech, ideas of the speech — it really was a spe­cial mo­ment,” Lu­cas said.

Some might ar­gue that today’s tech­no­logy pro­hib­its an­oth­er ad­dress from at­tain­ing the stature of King’s, that it could nev­er cut through the noise of mod­ern me­dia. But ex­perts say oratory can still pro­foundly im­pact Amer­ic­ans, not­ing that the power of the spoken word has per­sisted des­pite the ad­vent of the print­ing press, ra­dio, tele­vi­sion, and the In­ter­net. They even point to ex­amples.

“We have to re­mem­ber that just five years ago, Barack Obama cap­tiv­ated the na­tion, at least enough of the na­tion, through his oratory,” Lu­cas said. “So cer­tainly these things can hap­pen again, and it’s so easy to for­get what Obama ac­com­plished and how im­port­ant oratory was to it.”

Some even ar­gue that today’s tech­no­logy can el­ev­ate oratory — and not just for world lead­ers.

“The next great speech might be on You­Tube,” Younge said. “Mil­lions of people may watch it there, it may reach more people, it may last longer be­cause you can pull it out whenev­er you want, listen to it whenev­er you want … and it’s po­ten­tially more demo­crat­ic. You don’t have to be a lead­er of a move­ment or take to the po­di­um. Every­one’s got a po­di­um.”

What We're Following See More »
FILING DEADLINE IS JUNE 24
McConnell Urging Rubio to Run for Reelection
50 minutes ago
THE LATEST

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: "One of the things that I’m hoping, I and my colleagues have been trying to convince Senator Marco Rubio to run again in Florida. He had indicated he was not going to, but we’re all hoping that he’ll reconsider, because poll data indicates that he is the one who can win for us. He would not only save a terrific senator for the Senate, but help save the majority. ... Well, I hope so. We’re all lobbying hard for him to run again."

Source:
LEAKER SHOULD STILL STAND TRIAL
Holder: Snowden Performed a Public Service
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

Former Attorney General Eric Holder said that NSA leaker Edward Snowden "actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made" by releasing information about government surveillance. Holder, a guest on David Axelrod's "Axe Files" podcast, also said Snowden endangered American interests and should face consequences for his actions. 

Source:
LOOKING FOR A CALIFORNIA COMEBACK
Bernie Hits Game 7
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

Sen. Bernie Sanders, needing an improbable comeback to take the nomination from Hillary Clinton, showed up to the Warriors' Game 7 in Oakland during a break in California campaigning. "Let's turn this thing around," he told the San Francisco Chronicle's Joe Garofoli.

Source:
BACKING OUT ON BERNIE
Trump Won’t Debate Sanders After All
3 days ago
THE LATEST

Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”

AKNOWLEDGING THE INEVITABLE
UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
4 days ago
THE DETAILS

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Source:
×