8.24.2013

fifty years later, king and his most famous speech are transformed into patriotic mush

Today, Americans will march on Washington in commemoration of the most famous March on Washington: August 28, 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his now-famous "I Have A Dream" speech. The meaning of that speech, like the man who delivered it, has been purposefully misremembered, and so, is constantly misunderstood.

Here's the fully researched version of a theme I am always talking about, adapted from the book The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream, by Gary Younge.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took the podium on August 28, 1963, the Department of Justice was watching. Fearing that someone might hijack the microphone to make inflammatory statements, the Kennedy DOJ came up with a plan to silence the speaker, just in case. In such an eventuality, an official was seated next to the sound system, holding a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” which he planned to play to placate the crowd. 

Half a century after the March on Washington and the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the event has been neatly folded into America’s patriotic mythology. Relatively few people know or recall that the Kennedy administration tried to get organizers to call it off; that the FBI tried to dissuade people from coming; that racist senators tried to discredit the leaders; that twice as many Americans had an unfavorable view of the march as a favorable one. Instead, it is hailed not as a dramatic moment of mass, multiracial dissidence, but as a jamboree in Benetton Technicolor, exemplifying the nation’s unrelenting progress toward its founding ideals.

Central to that repackaging of history is the misremembering of King’s speech. It has been cast not as a searing indictment of American racism that still exists, but as an eloquent period piece articulating the travails of a bygone era. So on the fiftieth anniversary of ”I Have a Dream,” “Has King’s dream been realized?” is one of the two most common and, to my mind, least interesting questions asked of the speech; the other is “Does President Obama represent the fulfillment of King’s dream?” The short answer to both is a clear “no,” even if the longer responses are more interesting than the questions deserve. We know that King’s dream was not limited to the rhetoric of just one speech. To judge a life as full and complex as his by one sixteen-minute address, some of which was delivered extemporaneously, is neither respectful nor serious. . . .

Perhaps the best way to comprehend how King’s speech is understood today is to consider the radical transformation of attitudes toward the man who delivered it. Before his death, King was well on the way to being a pariah. In 1966, twice as many Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him as a favorable one. Life magazine branded his anti–Vietnam War speech at Riverside Church “demagogic slander” and “a script for Radio Hanoi.”

But in thirty years he went from ignominy to icon. By 1999, a Gallup poll revealed that King was virtually tied with John F. Kennedy and Albert Einstein as one of the most admired public figures of the twentieth century among Americans. He ranked as more popular than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Pope John Paul II and Winston Churchill; only Mother Teresa was more cherished. In 2011, a memorial to King was unveiled on the National Mall, featuring a thirty-foot-high statue sited on four acres of prime cultural real estate. Ninety-one percent of Americans (including 89 percent of whites) approved.

This evolution was not simply a matter of ill feelings and painful memories eroding over time. It was the result of a protracted struggle that sheds light on how the speech for which he is best known is today understood. The bill to establish King’s birthday as a federal holiday was introduced just a few days after his death, with few illusions as to its likely success. “We don’t want anyone to believe we hope Congress will do this,” said union leader Cleveland Robinson at a rally with King’s widow in 1969. “We’re just sayin’, us black people in America just ain’t gonna work on that day anymore.”

Congress would pass the bill, but not without a fight. In 1983, the year Ronald Reagan grudgingly signed Martin Luther King Day into law, he was asked if King was a communist sympathizer. “We’ll know in thirty-five years, won’t we?” he said, referring to the eventual release of FBI surveillance tapes. [Read it here.]
Meanwhile, as I write, in Washington, DC:


5 comments:

laura k said...

Dave Zirin ‏@EdgeofSports:

"You can get your signs back after the march. Actually, you know what? You can't." - exact quote from DC Park Police officer.

johngoldfine said...

http://suburbdad.blogspot.com/2013/07/of-armadillos-and-marxists.html

The blog entry above deals with the recent Zinn/Purdue kerfuffle.

He writes (and it describes exactly my experience teaching American history to college students [and 'People's History' was our text]):

"I struggled with teaching the civil rights movement the first couple of times, because students were so eager to reduce it to “MLK good, racists bad.” That wasn’t wrong, but it was facile. It didn’t require any actual thought, and it lent itself to a smug and unhelpful attitude that located racial conflict safely in the distant past."

I.e., MLK transmuted into, as you say, patriotic mush.

Alison said...

Thanks, Laura, very interesting.

A use of MLK's speech that I might be mangling a bit from memory...

When the war on Iraq began - a rather inaccurate phrase but anyway - and the news was full of whether Iraq would drop a chemical bomb on Israel, a local college radio station decided to broadcast successive segments of Dr. King's speech in place of war coverage during their news on the hour. It was a rather elegant juxtaposition as a listener, knowing that you were listening to King exactly in the slot where news of Iraq was expected.

laura k said...

Thanks, John. This is another perspective for me on something I think about so often - the formerly villified public enemy sanitized, neutered, and turned into a hero. My shorthand for it is Malcolm X on a postage stamp.

Thanks for the link, good stuff.

laura k said...

Wow Alison, that must have been very cool. What a great choice.

When the war on Iraq began - a rather inaccurate phrase but anyway -

Nice acknowledgement. Perhaps "When the US invaded Iraq" is the more accurate description.