Martin Luther King’s Dream Speech: Lightning in a Bottle

MLK Hop into your time-machine back to May 1896. The US Supreme Court is giving judgment in Plessy v Ferguson. Mr. Plessy was someone of ‘mixed descent’, namely “seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood.” He had been asked by the train conductor to leave a Louisiana railway carriage designated for white race people and move to the colored race carriage. He had refused and had ended up in prison. He is claiming that he had been treated unconstitutionally.

In a quirk of grisly irony a Mr. Justice Brown delivers the majority verdict:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it…

The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals…

Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation…

Now hop forward to 28 August 1963. A huge crowd of mainly dark-skinned Americans has assembled in Washington before the Lincoln Memorial to demand full civil rights and equality. Most of the people there have lived their lives in the shadow of that momentous Supreme Court judgment, and the profusion of ignominious apartheid-style laws and petty spiteful regulations that it justified. Martin Luther King steps up, the final speaker.

The full text of his speech is here. Read it. It’s not too long – some 1650 words. And then read this fascinating account by Clarence B. Jones of how the speech was written, and how on the day itself MLK pushed aside his notes and moved spontaneously into the I have a dream passages.

Many people have analysed this speech to try to find the secret of its motive power. The pounding repetitions and alliterations, the imagery, the abrupt leaps of language:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off, or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

What a startling, challenging phrase: “the fierce urgency of now.”

It’s easy to find in this speech plentiful examples of tricks of rhetoric that the ancient Greeks categorised so exhaustively. They don’t matter. They flow naturally with intelligent speech. What I find interesting is the ‘heaviness’ of much of the language:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a cheque. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this cheque – a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice…

The words are difficult, perhaps even cumbersome (in a sense, fall heir, default, promissory note, insofar, vaults, insufficient). Would any speechwriter today any speech-writer writing something like that to open a front-rank address? No. The emphasis now is on simplicity and accessibility – being understood, especially by focus groups. Quick, check how my draft speech measures up on the latest fancy readability parameters.

That’s the point. This speech of all speeches shows a man standing before a mass of people of whom many are less educated and certainly less articulate than he is. He knows and loves words, comfortable about using complex imagery and language where that works for his argument. He is above all authentic. He speaks as himself, not dumbing down his language in what amounts to a patronising way, even at the cost of perhaps not being fully understood at each phrase:

You asked me to speak to you. Well, here I am, long words and all!

Back in Plessy v Ferguson Mr. Justice Harlan dissents, in quite a long and involved sentence:

What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments which proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana.

67 years later Martin Luther King’s final message of hope, justice and – above all – the shared redemption of generosity soars out from the Lincoln Memorial, in a sentence 82 words long:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Speechwriters! You can’t draft something like that, and you shouldn’t try. Cut the speaker free, to say what has to be said. As Clarence B. Jones says: “It was a transcendental experience to be there. It was like watching lightning captured in a bottle.”

Charles Crawford Charles Crawford served as FCO speechwriter in the 1980s and then as British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw before leaving the UK Foreign Service in 2007 to start a new career as speechwriter, communications consultant and mediator. He can be reached via his website or @CharlesCrawford

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  • Jim McDermott

    "He knows and loves words, comfortable about using complex imagery and language where that works for his argument" …and all without a trace of Powerpoint; MLK's visual aid was himself.

  • Thanks Charles for bringing some exceptional statements details Martin Luther King was made during his time. I really like MLK's inspiring voice and speeches and the way he followed generous legacy is truly admiring.

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