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.”