"Though [King] was extremely well known before he stepped up to the lectern," Jones wrote, "he had stepped down on the other side of history."
Watching the whole thing on TV in the White House, President John F. Kennedy, who had never heard an entire King speech before, remarked: "He's damned good. Damned good." Almost everyone, including even King's enemies, recognized the speech's reach and resonance. William Sullivan, the FBI's assistant director of domestic intelligence, recommended, "We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous negro of the future of this nation."
A few in the crowd were unimpressed. Anne Moody, a black activist who had made the trip from rural Mississippi, recalled, "I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had 'dreamers' instead of leaders leading us. Just about every one of them stood up there dreaming. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton we never had time to sleep, much less dream."
But most were ebullient. "It would be like if, right now in the Arab spring, somebody made a speech that was 15 minutes long that summarized what this whole period of social change was all about," one of King's most trusted aides, Andrew Young, told me. "The country was in more turmoil than it had been in since before the second world war. People didn't understand it. And he explained it. It wasn't a black speech. It wasn't just a Christian speech. It was an all-American speech."
Fifty years on, the speech enjoys both national and global acclaim. A 1999 survey conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University, of 137 leading scholars of public address, named it the greatest speech of the 20th century.
During the protests in Tiananmen Square, China, some protesters held up posters of King saying "I have a dream". On the wall that Israel has built around parts of the West Bank, someone has written "I have a dream. This is not part of that dream." The phrase "I have a dream" has been spotted in such disparate places as a train in Budapest and on a mural in suburban Sydney. Asked in 2008 whether they thought the speech was "relevant to people of your generation", 68% of Americans said yes, including 76% of blacks and 67% of whites. Only 4% were not familiar with it.
But few of those in the movement thought at the time that it would be the speech by which King would be remembered 50 years later.
"Rustin always said that King's genius was that he could simultaneously talk to a black audience about why they needed to achieve their freedom and address a white audience about why they should support that freedom," recalls Horowitz. "Simultaneously. It was a genius that he could do that as one Gestalt… King's was the poetry that made the march immortal. He capped off the day perfectly. He did what everybody wanted him to do and expected him to do. But I don't think anybody predicted at the time that the speech would do what it did since."
Their bemusement was justified. For if, in its immediate aftermath, the speech had any significant political impact, it was not obvious. "At the time of King's death in April 1968, his speech at the March on Washington had nearly vanished from public view," writes Drew Hansen in his book about the speech, The Dream. "There was no reason to believe that King's speech would one day come to be seen as a defining moment for his career and for the civil rights movement as a whole… King's speech at the march is almost never mentioned during the monumental debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which occupy around 64,000 pages of the Congressional record."
History does not objectively sift through speeches, pick out the best on their merits and then dedicate them faithfully to public memory. It commits itself to the task with great prejudice and fickle appreciation, in a manner that tells us as much about the historian and the times as the speech itself. The speech was marginalized because, in the last few years of his life, King himself was marginalized, and few who had the power to elevate his speech to iconic status had any self-interest in doing so. His growing propensity to take on issues of poverty, followed by his opposition to the Vietnam war, lost him the support of the political class and much of his white and more conservative base.
King's speech at the March on Washington offers a positive prognosis on the apparently chronic American ailment of racism. As such, it is a rare thing to find in almost any culture or nation: an optimistic oration about race that acknowledges the desperate circumstances that made it necessary while still projecting hope, patriotism, humanism and militancy.
In the age of Obama and the Tea Party, there is something in there for everyone. It speaks, in the vernacular of the black church, with clarity and conviction to African Americans' historical plight and looks forward to a time when that plight will be eliminated ("We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating 'for whites only'. No, no, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream").
Its nod to all that is sacred in American political culture, from the founding fathers to the American dream, makes it patriotic ("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.'"). It sets bigotry against color-blindness while prescribing no route map for how we get from one to the other. ("I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists… little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.")
But the breadth of its appeal is to some extent at the expense of depth. It is in no small part so widely admired because the interpretations of what King was saying vary so widely. Polls show that while African Americans and American whites both agree about the extent to which "the dream has been realized", they profoundly disagree on the state of contemporary race relations. The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman over the shooting of the black teenager Trayvon Martin illustrates the degree to which blacks and whites are less likely to see the same problems, more likely to disagree on the causes of those problems and, therefore, unlikely to agree on a remedy. Hearing the same speech, they understand different things.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have been keen to co-opt both King and the speech. In 2010, Tea Party favorite Glenn Beck held the "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of the speech, telling a crowd of about 90,000: "The man who stood down on those stairs… gave his life for everyone's right to have a dream." Almost a year later, black Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain opened his speech to the southern Republican leadership conference with the words, "I have a dream."
Their embrace of the speech has made some black intellectuals and activists wary. They fear that the speech can too easily be distorted in a manner that undermines the speaker's legacy. "In the light of the determined misuse of King's rhetoric, a modest proposal appears in order," Georgetown university professor Michael Dyson wrote in 2001. "A 10-year moratorium on listening to or reading 'I Have a Dream'." At first blush, such a proposal seems absurd and counterproductive. After all, King's words have convinced many Americans that racial justice should be aggressively pursued. The sad truth is, however, that our political climate has eroded the real point of King's beautiful words."
These responses tell us at least as much about now as then, perhaps more. The 50th anniversary of "I have a dream" arrives at a time when the president is black, whites are destined to become a minority in the US in little more than a generation, and civil rights-era protections are being dismantled. Segregationists have all but disappeared, even if segregation as a lived experience has not. Racism, however, remains.
Fifty years on, it is clear that in eliminating legal segregation — not racism, but formal, codified discrimination — the civil rights movement delivered the last moral victory in America for which there is still a consensus. While the struggle to defeat it was bitter and divisive, nobody today is seriously campaigning for the return of segregation or openly mourning its demise. The speech's appeal lies in the fact that, whatever the interpretation, it remains the most eloquent, poetic, unapologetic and public articulation of that victory.
Adapted from The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King's Dream, by Gary Younge.