What makes the 'I Have a Dream' speech great

5:08 PM, Aug 28, 2013   |    comments
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By Art Holliday

KSDK - When Gerald Early first heard the "I Have a Dream" speech, he was only 11 years old. Even at that young age, he thought it was the greatest thing he had ever heard.

"I didn't even know that much about politics at the time," Early said. "I knew this was something special. It was riveting."

Early is now a professor at Washington University, where he is both a student and admirer of the "I Have a Dream" speech. So is his colleague, Jason Purnell.

"It was one of those situations where the man met the moment," Purnell said.

After being inspired by a college class, Washington State Rep. Drew Hansen wrote "The Dream: Martin Luther King and the Speech that Inspired the Nation."

"If King had just gotten up there and read the prepared text, we would not be talking about it 50 years later," Hansen said.

That's because King's prepared speech at the March on Washington didn't include the phrase "I have a dream."

"It was improvised," Early said. "Mahalia Jackson told him, 'tell them about the dream, Martin'. There were snippets of 'I have a dream' in some earlier speeches. That was not unusual if you look at his career, you look at the speeches that he gave, you see that he often uses the same phrases in different speeches."

"Next to him on the podium was Mahalia Jackson, who had sung just a little bit earlier, and she says to 'tell them about the dream Martin, tell them about the dream'" Hansen said. "And you can see King looking down at the text and he looks up and says 'and so I say to you today my brothers and sisters, even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream' and he's off into the most famous lines of American history with lines that he never intended to give that day."

"That's very much the key to his speech, especially at that part where the audience starts to know what's coming," Hansen said, "and if you listen to King, he pauses after every time he repeats a key phrase like 'I have a dream', so he runs the sentences into one another like 'I have a dream that one day my four little children will grow up in a country where there'll be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. I have a dream'. And then he stops and the audience goes crazy ."

"It wasn't a great speech until he launched into the dream segment of the speech," Purnell said. "The hallmark of jazz is improvisation, so I think it's a beautiful thing that one of the most famous speeches in our history is something that was improvised. There's something American about that."

During that historic speech, King also managed to speak brilliantly to multiple audiences.

"Tell the politicians that you need to move forward with civil rights legislation. Tell the marchers that you have to keep marching. Tell the militants 'you gotta cool it,'" Early said. "Tell black people that you have to have white allies because you can't do it alone. He accomplished that in this speech, to talk to all those different audiences in a way that turned out to be inspirational and not threatening to those audiences."

"He was talking to multiple audiences in a way that was very deft," Purnell said. "So he was telling people who had just come from being beaten and jailed in the South that were deeply involved in the civil rights movement to go back to the south, with a renewed faith that you can be successful."

Purnell also pointed out King's use of metaphors.

"I love the image of the promissory note, which isn't often replayed when we hear the speech. Dr. King says the African-American community has been given 'a bad check, a check that's come back marked insufficient funds'. It was actually the first big applause line of the speech in the prepared text. It was a sense that there was unfinished business to be done. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, but there was unfinished work to be done," he said.

Early, Purnell and Hansen say one of the reasons Dr. King's speech has become iconic is the skillful way he challenged America to live up its unfulfilled promises.

"It's so rare to hear this is what we could be as a people. This is what it would look like if we truly valued each other and cared for each other," Purnell said.

"I think what King's trying to do is very self-consciously emphasize what unites us as Americans no matter where we were at that point on segregation, on black protest, on nonviolence, on militancy, and hope that these aspects of our shared heritage would draw the country together and make us do the right thing. It remains very powerful today to think about this prophetic vision of what America really should be," Hansen said.

"King's speech really seemed to capture the hope of the moment, in the sense of how we were really going to come together as a nation," Early said. "It was remarkable thing. It was a remarkable speech for a remarkable moment in history."


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