You may call Martin Luther King Jr. a dreamer, but he’s not the only one… as America gears up to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the official day celebrating the great man and inspirational orator, what better opportunity than to take a another look at King’s much celebrated, often imitated, never surpassed “I Have a Dream” speech and find out why his timeless address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial still strikes such a chord and puts the fire in the belly and the steel in the resolve more than half a century later.
It’s been a hell of a long time since Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and although a lot has changed between then and now, King’s words have still lost none of their power to rouse, inspire, and get the heart beating and blood pumping with a righteous rhythm.
Let’s be fair, speeches are not what they once were, but then again neither are politicians or prominent public figures. There may be a lot of contemporary geniuses well-versed in the art of preening, posturing, and pontificating, but when was the last time Donald Trump or others of his ilk gave a speech that invoked in the listener anything other than uneasy nausea and a mild sense of annoyance?
There are a lot of political plums out there who may love the sound of their own voice, but they’d get in bed gladly with their political opponents – Oh wait! some of them already have! – just to possess a fraction of the force of nature that runs like an electric current through Martin Luther King Jr’s signature speech.
Familiarity may breed contempt, but it doesn’t matter how many times you hear King’s preacher man tones bellowing such lines as “Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.” It still puts the fire in your belly and steel in your resolve the way few other historical speeches can.
King’s hymn to equality, justice, and freedom appeals to people of all colors and all nationalities because, beneath its raging sincerity and sentiment, there is an overriding belief in the power of humanity to overcome all the pettiness and prejudice that keep us broken and stranded the mire of mud, blood, fear, and loathing.
King’s words, such as, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” may appeal to our rationality, but poetically they are biblically intoxicating, as are such cries from the heart of discontent as, “We refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt.” and, “This situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”
Like an epic Bob Dylan song, King’s “Dream” is full of myth, magic, metaphor, and majesty, whilst at the same time delivering a very easily understandable, simplistic, and emotive plea for people to be treated as equals regardless of race.
As the great man said, “This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” Amen Martin, Amen.
Of course, King’s delivery, timing, natural charisma, captivating voice, and measured manner all conspire to make the words bounce off one another like bottled lightning. Which perhaps wouldn’t be the case if they fell from the lips of a seasoned statesman such as… fill in the blank.
Yet it’s the prompting of King’s friend Mahalia Jackson who yells towards the end of the speech, “Tell them about the dream Martin!” That things really start to cook with a righteous flavor.
King departs from the prepared text, and like a hell and brimstone preacher on steroids, he starts yelling about still having a dream and what that dream entails. Turning into a man possessed with the all the hope and suffering of generations, King starts to lay it on the line until he reaches boiling point and triumphantly ends with the immortal and orgasmic, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
If King were alive today, would he be surprised to still find racism was alive and well and doing its level best to retard the human race? Probably not! Would he be surprised to find that the current President of the U.S. wasn’t a white man? Probably! Would he still strive to fight injustice and inequality in all its myriad forms wherever it may lurk? Let’s hope so. Because as King and everyone else knows, if you’ve haven’t got a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?
(Photo by Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)