It was this shout from the crowd by soul singer Mahalia Jackson that prompted Martin Luther King to abandon his notes and extemporise his way into what is often regarded as the greatest speech in history.
The interjection from Mahalia Jackson reminds us that the speech was like a conversation. It was given with a great sense of crowd involvement. It was about sharing. Indeed the theme at the core of the speech: shared suffering, shared hope, shared destiny.
“Our white brothers… have come to realise that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
Although the speech is littered with allusions to the Bible and although it borrows much from gospel sermons, Martin Luther King was not preaching. Throughout the speech Martin Luther King is emphasising what people share. And most importantly of all he emphasises that what all share most is being “American”.
“I still have a dream”
But then he explains in the next sentence:
“It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
He is talking of the American Dream. Something shared, universal and based on what “the architects of our republic wrote”:
“the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence”
At the start of the speech Martin Luther King refers to “Five score years ago” an echo of Lincoln’s phrase in the Gettysburg address “four score and seven years ago…”. This was itself referring back to the Declaration of Independence of 1776.
So running through the speech is continuity and shared ideals of the American Dream. Martin Luther King is saying that to be American is believe in the “unalienable Rights”
He defined a vision for the people. In short Martin Luther King was defining for America what it was to be American. And that still holds true today, just as he “prophesied”:
“Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.”
The speech constantly refers actually or metaphorically to a journey.
It feels like it was made at a stopping point on a march. And of course. it was made at the Lincoln Memorial, symbol of white American achievement.
The speech was delivered to, largely, people of colour, but it was really aimed at the white people of America. The people who would hear the speech not “live”, but through radio and the TV and in the newspapers.
Above all, this was a speech meant to be broadcast, with a full understanding and sense of what broadcast technologies would do.
It’s right there in his call:
“And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.”
The people on “the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire” and “the curvaceous slopes of California” were white people getting the news. And for “let freedom ring” read the unseen ‘airwaves’ of TV and radio. These were the unseen, elemental forces that would bring a new America together. King knew this. He played upon it and he knew that ultimately broadcasting would deliver his dream of all men being equal, because all men would be interconnected.
Finally, although this speech is about being black and white; it is never black and white itself. He does not blame or divide;
He calls for his audience to:
“rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force”
There is a “soul force” coursing through the speech. It is there in the anaphora, (the repeated use of certain words or phrases) of “Let freedom ring”, “one hundred years…”, “we cannot be satisfied…” and above all of course, in the most famous of all repeated statements “I have a dream”.
The power and fame of this speech comes down to that phrase “I have a dream”. It shows that, at heart, speech making is about putting out a vision, a dream of how you want the world to be. John F Kennedy, King’s contemporary, knew this. All great leaders know this.
Indeed to paraphrase Kennedy: If you want to change with world, make a speech.