Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Fifty years is a long time, but King’s impassioned plea to end racism in America still stirs the soul. And, though we’ve made great strides with race relations in this country since 1963, an April 2012 poll conducted by Newsweek noted that Americans are still divided over race and that 74 percent of black people have felt they experienced discrimination due to their race, yet only 31 percent of white people have ever experienced the same.
“I have a dream,” said King on that day nearly half a century ago, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” We’ve come a long way, but we’re not quite there yet.
There are many picture book biographies about King and his historic speech. In October, Schwartz & Wade Books released a new addition to the canon of King picture books, I Have a Dream, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, which closes with the speech in its entirety and also includes a CD recording of King’s legendary words.
Kadir Nelson is one of the finest illustrators at work today. He’s a master artist, capable of lush, breathtaking, deeply emotional spreads. He also excels at capturing the African American experience, most recently with last year’s Heart and Soul, a history of America and African Americans, from colonial days through the civil rights movement, which he both wrote and illustrated.
His depiction of King’s famous speech, rendered in a series of exquisite oil paintings, is simply magnificent. He captures the nobility of King’s face in a way that only Nelson can – with precision and grace and sheer drama. To be sure, he doesn’t just stick with King on the steps of the Memorial. In the book’s second spread, he pans out to show the throngs of people listening to King; on the third spread, he depicts a black man and white man standing as equals; he depicts children of all shades; and he paints the hilltops, mountains, and valleys of which King spoke.
In what I find to be the most striking spread, Nelson shows King from behind with his head turned, taking a moment from his speech to take in the huge crowds. He exudes confidence, yet almost looks as if he can hardly believe the history he knows is being made. This is a brief and beautiful moment. In the distance, the Washington Monument looms, though Nelson gives plenty of breathing room for the great expanse of sky.
The final spread – “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” – depicts ascending doves on the backdrop of a bright, blue sky, a fitting ending to what the starred Kirkus review calls a “title for remembrance and for re-dedication to the dream.”
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.