Martin Luther King’s birthday holiday offered a chance to hear his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” delivered at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington August 28, 1963. One NPR show broadcast the same speech delivered by King on another occasion, too, in Detroit. So King apparently used the speech more than once. (Complete text here).
My friend, Internet columnist John Armor (Congressman Billybob), properly urges his readers to listen to the entire address. “It will challenge you to write, think and speak better. Excellence on the hoof does that for us.”
Toward the end, King says, “We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The vast audience cheers, knowing what’s coming. You can almost hear the excited comments in the crowd, “Here he goes!” And there indeed he went. With that image, King began his peroration, which piles exalted image upon exalted image, building to the singing climax:
“When we let freedom 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!'”
I WAS STRUCK, LISTENING to the old recording, by the contrast with speech making today. Grand oratory used to be a kind of sporting event in America. Politicians and preachers and other grandees made speeches on all kinds of occasions, and people gathered to appreciate the spectacle and the entertainment, and to rate one orator against another.
That doesn’t happen much any more. A politician today invoking the mighty stream of righteousness is more likely to find himself condemned for religiosity than admired for eloquence. If the speaker happens to be a Republican, especially a Republican President, he may find himself roundly condemned for “blurring the line between church and state.”
King’s speech is absolutely typical, absolutely mainstream American oratory — until just the past 40 years or so. It draws its power from invocations of traditional authority, particularly quotes from the Bible and from hymns. Indeed, his peroration consists at least half of quoted material: The Book of Isaiah (or rather, the adaptation of a famous passage from Isaiah for the first aria in Handel’s Messiah); “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”; the Declaration of Independence; a Negro spiritual.
As such, it presumes upon its audience: Presumes that the audience will not only understand the references, but know them by heart and love and revere them. Nowadays, when people fumble over even the first verse of the national anthem, it is not too much to point out that such is not the case any more.
SNAP QUIZ: WHO SAID THIS, AND WHERE? “For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.” And this: “Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.” And this: “(Let) both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.”
Those sentences come from the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy, that widely praised icon of speechmaking. Truly, they are not very good, and neither is the speech as a whole. The alienation from our roots has already begun. JFK, for all his sonorous Theodore Sorensen periods, comes off speaking more like a B movie Hercules than a historic President.
He refers to a Bible verse only once, and tells his audience he is doing so: “Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah — to ‘undo the heavy burdens … and to let the oppressed go free.'”
Outside the reference to the oath of office, Kennedy invokes God twice. In the first reference, he sounds quite a lot like George W. Bush: “The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” The second, the last sentence of the speech, is odd: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
The Sorensen/Kennedy formulation here tinges what is usually a humble appeal for God’s blessing with the typical “we know what we’re doing” whiz kid-ism of the Kennedy administration. Indeed, the whole speech suffers from this sophomoric certitude. It starts at a high rhetorical pitch and never lets up. It has no climax, but rather a series of applause lines.
“I Have a Dream” is grand. The Kennedy inaugural is grandiose.
WITH THE KENNEDY INAUGURAL, a tradition in American oratory begins to die. “I Have a Dream” marks one of only several outposts of the old style, which, with Bill Clinton, disappeared entirely. There was Reagan, of course, that sunny throwback. But after that? Not much.
We miss not only the imagery and heritage. We miss the sonorous orator’s voice, so masculine and paternal. A voice like that today generally elicits the reaction, “Eeuw! He sounds so preachy!” Or, “Who does he think he is, being so sure of himself?” We have spoiled a whole lot, haven’t we?
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