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 Izad
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Elahe Izad
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.”

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