Gary Younge’s The Speech– released in 2013 by Haymarket Books (updated edition)- is increasingly important in these early days of Trumplandia. A real account of the lead up to, acceptance, and political trajectory of King’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, the book is a clear reminder of the power of rhetoric but also of the forces of “nullification” that can manipulate even the noblest of utterances into their opposite. Reading The Speech is to be trained howsoever partially in the reality of political struggle, something to which we must all devote considerable time, energy, and financial support in the coming months and years.
King was a remarkable figure but has been lionized largely posthumously. Though he was the recipient of the Nobel Prize, had parleyed with JFK and LBJ, and for a while was the most prominent figure in the Civil Rights movement, by the end of his life, his popularity had waned just as his politics had radicalized. His famous 1967 speech in the Riverside Church wherein he inveighed against the war in Vietnam and the purveying of violence by the US- considered to be his finest and most substantive by many- is hardly known while his poetic 1963 “I Have a Dream” oration is used on TV shows, advertisements, and even in Republican conventions. King’s radicalism and humanism have been co-opted, prompting scholars like Michael Dyson to ask for a 10-year moratorium on reference to the speech. Ironically, reference to the speech exempts the referrer from the sort of radicalization that might in fact lead the a world in which the Dream is reality.
Younge’s book- a paen to King’s greatness (and that of others)- is in fact than a story of him or the speech (and its misuses) but is instead a contextual and political commentary on race, justice, and humanity – and their unsmooth arc—from King’s time to Obama’s. King-as-radical is the real story of the book.
Now we’re in Trump’s time.
Fundamental to the theses in the book is that the nobility and idealism of the Dream itself are inextricably tied to its far-reaching nature. The Dream was about racial equality but also class equality. It was about human dignity and the overhang of history. It was about the assertion that we can and will deliver humanity unto each other. The practicalities of laying a foundation for the Dream are also emphasized in the book, with a remarkable narrative of the amazing organizational powers of Bayard Rustin- a real pragmatist- who pulled of an organizational miracle in record time.
In the Time of Trump, one might wonder how reading a book about a 54 year old speech can make any difference. Simply put, we can learn an incredible amount from it- from the mix of idealism and organizational pragmatism to the need to channel the harmony of decent-but-divergent opinions into a powerful blow to Power. We must also remember that in a world of “alternative facts,” that the ideals proclaimed that sweltering day in 1963 are deliberately used and abused and molded into agenda that at times contradict everything King stood, spoke, and died for.
We all know people who like to quote the speech. We all know that just doing so exonerates the speaker from interrogating its true sense and from understanding how far we are from the Dream, decades later. When this happens next time, give the person The Speech and hope that – together- you can honor its sentiments with clear action, a mixture of idealism and the urgency of NOW.
Romi Mahajan can be reached at email@example.com