Listen to the radio verson of this piece on NPR’s Day to Day.
When black teen preachers-in-training shake the halls of their parents’ houses by reciting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech into their bedroom mirrors—as white boys shake other houses playing Jimmy Page—what part of the speech do they hit the hardest? A preacher studying King’s brand of honorable extortion might practice saying, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” Another, working on mounting vibrato and syllable extension, might rehearse, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
But we all know it’s the chorus on which a man proves himself—the soliloquy, that, as “to be or not to be” once was, is both a cliché of contemporary oratory and its sine qua non. Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of King’s unsurpassed speech, an event that ABC will mark with an intelligent and rousing documentary, Peter Jennings Reporting—I Have a Dream (Thursday, 10 p.m. ET). By giving fragments of the speech throughout the hour—and reminding us with archival footage from Alabama and the Oval Office how much pressure King was under as he built to his crescendo—the program generates tense anticipation. Finally, near the show’s end, it is a relief to hear the words:
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 a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
In the televised version, you can hear King not only calling to arms but moaning because “he sees how bad things are,” in the words of Taylor Branch, author of Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire, two parts of a planned trilogy about King. (The program relies heavily on Branch’s forceful account of King’s career before 1963.) That submerged moan may define his beautiful sound, but so does the low cluck present in that “I have a dream today,” which King delivers while shaking his head, as if at the enormity of the task ahead of him and—a little disingenuously—at the preposterousness of his mortal dream.
As the documentary elucidates, King began his speech rather stiffly. He emphasized a broken contract: “America has given the Negro people a bad check.” From there, he wondered only if the nation would be good enough to pay the debt; he implied that this was all he’d ask. But just after condemning violence and espousing cooperation, just at the moment he is said to have departed from his notes (“sensing something in the crowd,” he explained later), he departed too from deference—and even talk of justice. As a government official stood by, ready to pull the plug on his mike if King seemed to incite violence, the preacher appeared to level with the crowd, offering his own uncensored vision.
King had tested parts of his long-standing dream rhetoric the night before in Detroit, but he amplified it at the Lincoln Memorial, seeming to unburden himself of a long and strange wish, unique to him, that one day “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” In a period when such an image was officially apocalyptic, this idea was fanciful, King suggested. Furthermore, he was not demanding anything; he was just relating a far-fetched dream. All this he communicated by a head shake, by a cluck, and by dents in his chin that made him seem to be fighting tears. If I were practicing my preaching, I would work on shake, cluck, and cry-mouth as I said, as if to myself, “I have a dream today.”
“That’s what was given to him to say,” one woman who was there tells ABC’s camera. Another person interviewed recalls, “He said, ‘I want to preach.’ “
Set up with bold black-and-white ‘60s-style title cards, Peter Jennings Reporting—I Have a Dream is broken into segments, each centering on a phrase from King’s speech. “Little Black Boys and Little Black Girls” tells the story of the Children’s Crusadein Birmingham, in which, at the Rev. James Bevel’s incendiary suggestion, 1,000 children and students were appointed to demonstrate and get arrested in a last-ditch plea to win national sympathy for the cause of desegregation in Alabama. Proponents believed that if children were old enough to go to church, they were old enough to go to jail. Off they went—under the cameras that telecast the city’s aggressive forms of crowd control into houses across the country. As Dick Gregory, who gives the show’s sharpest interview, puts it, “People who didn’t give a damn about a Negro still didn’t want to see dogs biting little children. … Horrible pictures coming out forced this government to do things it wasn’t going to do, and wouldn’t have done.”
Demonstrators soon paraded through other cities, including Greenville, N.C., where Jesse Jackson, looking darling and bug-eyed in a starched collar and fedora, had an unforgettable conversation with a doorman.
“Can I be admitted?” Jesse says.
“No, sirree, you cannot be admitted.”
“I’m not going to serve you!”
The doorman is so burly and volatile, and Jackson so soft-spoken as to be barley audible, that it’s virtually impossible to imagine the later Jackson shouting down crowds of men twice the guy’s size. I don’t think I had even understood the phrase “how far we’ve come” until I replayed that exchange three times.
Also revealing were the crowd scenes, both in Birmingham and in Washington, into which—the documentary explains—white people were planted at President Kennedy’s behest. What’s striking is how many unplanted black women, many in hats and bobby socks, showed up to demonstrate. Though women were notoriously left out of the upper ranks of the civil rights movement, they showed passion as followers. Could it be that women, less seduced by the possibilities of grandstanding like King and more persuaded by his simple insistence that they get their citizenship’s worth, currently outstrip black men educationally and economically because they were denied the temptations of charismatic leadership?
King’s belligerence (he praised the “marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community”) and his Christian piety are on display in the ABC show. More ecumenical versions of King’s life—like the ones presented in public high schools—often leave these parts out. The show also provides a window onto celebrity activism of the period: a fleeting image of Paul Newman in a beard, together with Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier and Charlton Heston in the March on Washington, may alone make the show worth watching. And though ABC can’t but rehearse familiar history (in particular, Kennedy’s reluctance to listen to King until provoked by a Cold War fear that other nations would perceive his notion of a “free world” as hypocritical), all the period footage has been adroitly anthologized. The documentary uses its inventive graphics in place of specious re-creations. Peter Jennings is rarely on camera. And the talking heads, many of whom are senior citizens and players from 1963, are spirited and at times even original.
Finally, by persuasively demonstrating how important it was that King prove himself in Washington, Peter Jennings Reporting—I Have a Dream made me appreciate the audacity of the free-at-last finale to King’s speech. Remember, King makes this unjustified declaration of freedom just after lamenting ongoing black oppression. But it ends the speech perfectly. What becomes plain is that King, empowered by the crowd, became emboldened to abandon the subjunctive “I have a dream” and hazard the declarative. “Thank God Almighty,” he said, “we are free at last.” In that very speech, and King realized this as he spoke, he had made the declaration possible.