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MLK's Most Famous, Least Understood 'I Have a Dream' Speech

The author of a new book discusses what made King's famous speech both "timely and timeless."
 
 
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Editor's Note: The following is a Q&A with Gary Younge, author of The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream.The 50th anniversay of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream speech" is on Aug. 28, 2013. Numerous events will be taking place across the country, including a major event this Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. with special emphasis on combating Stand Your Ground and racial profiling.

Alyssa Figueroa: What inspired you to write the book?

Gary Younge: It’s one of those things that everybody feels they know about, everybody loves, but while they do love it, they don’t really know it. It’s the most admired, least well-known speech I think I’ve ever come across. I mean I’ve been interested in it for a while and each time I’ve come across it throughout the years, I’d think “God, oh really, wow.” Of course, all the drama during the day is incredible.

But also just the way in which it’s been dealt with historically, I find intriguing. It’s become this real brilliant speech, but at the time, what he stood for was controversial — it was not well-liked by a lot of white folks. But leading up to it the march itself was deeply contentious. And as a foreigner, it’s always been intriguing to me the way that America takes these things without evidence of the bad things that have happened. It’s like, this just shows what a fantastic country we are.

AF: What do you think people would be most surprised to learn about the speech? And what were you most surprised to learn during your research?

GY: I think the thing that most people don’t know is the interruption by Mahalia Jackson toward the end [who told King to tell the people about “the dream”]. That people are most surprised that [the “I have a dream” refrain] was extemperaneous. It wasn’t ad libbing given that King said the dream refrain before, many times. But people are most surprised to know that it wasn’t in text. By most accounts he had no intention of giving that refrain when he stepped onto the podium.

The thing that surprised me most when doing the research was just that year. I understood that Birmingham was an important element in the Civil Rights movement. And I understood the chain of events — there was the sit-ins in ’60, the freedom rides in ’61, Birmingham in ’63. I know the dates. But I didn’t realize the magnitude, the pivotal role that Birmingham had, and the degree to which, in that year the mood of the Civil Rights movement’s pace kept moving much faster than the leadership could keep up with. So they were much more impatient, much more militant than most of the Civil Rights leadership gave them credit for. So very quickly, the Civil Rights leaders moved from leaders to following, and they were just running to catch up. So that’s one thing I wasn’t quite aware of.

And the other thing is the speech itself. I haven’t met anyone who knew King who thought that we would still be speaking about it 50 years later. They pretty much admitted, yeah, it was a good speech, he gave a lot of good speeches. It did what it had to do. It crowned the day off well. It was well delivered. But that’s what he did. And everyone’s got another speech that they liked better. And they’re not saying it in that jealous way that people say, "Oh I don't like that band anymore because everybody else likes it." They were saying that “No I had no idea that we would be speaking about this speech.”And so the degree to which these things become historical through time — in that moment, people aren’t thinking, ‘Oh wow, that’s it.’ And that the way history kind of sifts through these things with great prejudice and then makes a call. I was surprised by that. I had always assumed that everybody realized right from the get go that he knocked it out of the park.

 
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