CHENNAI: Great speeches are immortal. They linger on in our collective consciousness even after the orator has passed on. One of the most iconic speeches ever made was by civil rights leader Martin Luther King on Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC. He fought indefatigably for African Americans’ equal rights. Even after all these years, his mesmerising style of oratory and powerful words can give us goose bumps. It was a long speech. But everyone remembers the famous section where King spoke about his dream to the massive gathering. He said:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day, this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
The night before the big day, King laboured on the speech till 4 am. Paradoxically, King’s adviser had told him not to use any of the “dream stuff” calling it “trite” and “cliched.” But King’s intuition prevailed and when he mounted the podium, caught in the passion of the occasion, he put aside his prepared remarks and extemporaneously delved into the dream section of the speech after his friend Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer, shouted out to him: “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) considered King an enormous national security threat and went to extreme lengths to derail his civil rights work. King knew that he was being monitored, so the day before the march, he and his advisers met to discuss the speech in the lobby of the Willard Hotel because it would be harder to wiretap than a suite.
FBI Director J Edgar Hoover spent significant resources monitoring King’s movements and eavesdropping on him. Attorney General Robert Kennedy gave the organisation the power to break into King’s office and home to install phone taps and bugs to monitor him. The recordings did not reveal any association with the communist party but they got extensive details about his extramarital affairs. When Hoover learnt that King would be the recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, he stepped up his fanatical obsession with obliterating King. An anonymous note was sent to King by the FBI agents, chastising him for his affairs and implying that he should commit suicide.
Watching the speech from the White House, President Kennedy reportedly remarked, “That guy is really good.” However, the head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division, William Sullivan, was not as enamoured of King, and two days later, wrote a memo that the speech solidified King as the “most dangerous negro of the future from the standpoint of communism, the negro community and national security.” Amazingly, the next day, several newspapers overlooked not only the dream section of the speech, but chose to focus on the extraordinary spectacle of the march itself. Though so celebrated today, the speech had “nearly vanished from public view” by the time King fell to an assassin’s bullet in 1968.