Notes from the Now

Posts Tagged ‘drew_hansen’

The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation

In History, literature, sociology on October 18, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Early this year, I read Pauline Maier’s document history of the Declaration of Independence. It looked at the Declaration as the end point of a process and made some fascinating comparisons to other document sources, the conventions of the day, the competing interests in the revolutionary movement, as well as the genius of the primary author (and of the drafting committee). The declaration itself was a fascinating hodge-podge of old & new, (and ‘er, “something borrowed & something blue”) that has shown itself to be much more than the sum of its parts.

Drew Hansen’s “The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation” tries to do something very similar with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (audio). Hansen puts the speech in its context at the March on Washington, in the Civil Rights Movement of the day, and in Dr. King’s career up to that point. Hansen illuminates which aspects of the speech were part of Dr. King’s usual ministerial stump speech, which parts were crafted specifically for the context of the March on Washington, and what was simply inspiration that came to him at the moment.  In so doing, Hansen gives us tremendous insight into the man, the moment, and the times.

As interesting as the textual analysis itself was, Hansen succeeds most in putting the speech as a whole in its context during it’s time, in its immediate aftermath, and talking about the process (of decontextualization) that made it iconic.

For as much of a watershed moment as it’s “remembered” as being, and in spite of the powerful impact that it had on those who were listening at the times, the speech was essentially forgotten for most of the interval before Dr. King’s assassination.  King himself had begun to lose his luster as moving the struggle for civil rights outside of the South brought him new detractors, and challenging the Vietnam war further complicated his relationship with the powers that be.  Sadly, it is his martyrdom that allowed for his entire career to be looked at beyond the individual news-cycles of the day, and helped society at large to appreciate the affection that African-Americans had for Dr. King.   It is only further after the fact that the speech was recalled and elevated to be a stand-in for the entirety of the Civil Rights Era.

It’s tough to read something like this without comparing the story to the happenings in the present day, and there’s a consistency in the style (and substance) of the attacks — all usually prefaced with “I’m not a racist” — made on Dr. King and President Obama that’s startling and ultimately disheartening.   Dr. King suffered through a line of attack that should be familiar to the modern American — from being accused of trying to enslave the white man, to being a socialist, being more orator than “doer”, winning an under-deserved Nobel Prize, taking attacks on personal conduct/history — and ultimately came to understand that while he had seen the promised land, that he was unlikely to get there with us.

Fortunately, one piece of his legacy is still making the journey to that promised land with us.

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