A fan’s notes on the speech that garnered wide acceptance largely through MLK’s vision of what America could become, rather than a condemnation of what it was.
A Rhodes scholar in theology, Hansen, born the year after that 1963 event in Washington, D.C., first revisits the 1960s, with snapshots of the burgeoning civil-rights landscape. In three southern states, for example, no black child attended an integrated school; in the 100 counties of the South with the highest ratio of African-American population, fewer than nine percent of nonwhites were registered to vote. (King's principal objective was to denounce both Jim Crow laws in the South and the pernicious de facto segregation in the North.) Hansen then examines the most memorable of King’s thousands of speeches as a historical artifact: What is it that has sustained its remembrance? Were the thoughts and the language King’s alone? King took the podium at the end of the day, Hansen reminds, after many well-known civil-rights figures had spoken. He hadn’t had much national exposure until then, but a few minutes standing before the Lincoln Memorial changed all that, vaulting him into the national spotlight and forefront of black leadership. In closely analyzing the text of the speech, the author compares supporting drafts of two associates and King’s own final written version with the actual spoken words. There’s no doubt that King’s extensive departures from prepared text formed the most eloquent and inspiring moments. Further probing suggests how lifelong immersion in the language of the King James Bible may have melded with King’s unabashed borrowing of like-minded activists’ utterances to provide grist for “the dream.”
Studied anatomy of one bold moment of extemporaneous triumph.