A Speech that Changed America

Paul Evans

That day in August, 1963 a man and a movement seized a moment with a message that inspired a generation and facilitated an era of redefining Civil Rights in America. What will we do with our moment?

Two score and ten years ago next month Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues led a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

It was a hot and sultry day full of promise: it was a day that has been often imitated but never equaled.

King came to Washington to petition for cause; he brought his movement to the federal Capitol in the hopes of inspiring action – in the hopes of compelling our American conscience to confront the human consequences of Jim Crow and choose to become better, stronger as a nation and people.

In the five decades since the March on Washington our nation has both changed the world and been changed by it. Consider all that has happened since:

  1. the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King Jr.;
  2. the Vietnam War;
  3. Watergate and Nixon’s resignation;
  4. a race to the Moon and back – and a permanent International Space Station;
  5. the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air Act;
  6. Reaganomics – and the transformation of the US from the greatest creditor nation on the planet into the greatest debtor nation in history;
  7. two US wars in the Persian Gulf – and one in Afghanistan;
  8. the collapse of the Soviet Union;
  9. the rise of China; and
  10. globalization on a scale that has forever shifted the markets – an emerging reality that has can either enslave or equalize people – a set of economic forces that we have yet to manage effectively, or for that matter even fully understand.

In the time since that historic August afternoon, we have twice elected Barack Obama, made significant strides towards equality in gender and sexual orientation, kept the world from nuclear annihilation, and facilitated an historic transformation of our human experience through globally available technologies that were once nothing more than vague notions found in science fiction movies.

We have achieved much. But we have much left to do. Sometimes it seems that for every two steps taken forward we are pushed back a step. Over time we have made steady progress but it has not – and will not – come easy.

Not long ago the US Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, sustained the power of corporations through soft money campaign expenditures, and stood witness as the nation’s airwaves, lands, seas – and yes, even elements of our human genome – have become subject to increasing private controls.

We live in a different America than King knew in 1963. Cultural, ethnic, and racial changes have transformed the face of our America. In many ways our demographics have recast our structures and systems. It is critical that we remember how the hard work of the 1960s and 1970s peeled away the barriers to employment, interracial marriage, and property ownership that allowed our more equal society.

And yet, even as we celebrate the advancement made, we know that some Americans remain in isolation and poverty. The past fifty years have seen pushback on policies that could have made a tremendous difference in the poorest regions of America.

Unfortunately, our politics have become increasingly vicious. Today the most extreme elements of our society have become radicalized. In our times corporate wealth has been combined with misdirected rage to limit the helping hand of reasoned, responsible governance.

Elections have become contests between those that favor a “partner” government and those that view all government to be evil by origin. Many people are now incapable of understanding the schism for what it is: a manufactured contest to keep us divided and unequal.

Irony abounds as the party of Lincoln has morphed into the Tea Party: a nexus of division, diversion, and intolerance.

This August, we celebrate an America that is more tolerant of differences in culture, ethnicity, race, and religion than any nation in history. Warts and all, we still attempt things few other nations would dare to try.

And yet, we are still short – far short – of the kind of America we can become.

The message of a shared vision – a collaboratively secured and sustained “American Dream” for every American – has never been more critical to the general welfare of our nation, state, and communities.

Like many speech teachers, I require students to read and then watch King’s address. It is always interesting to listen to the comments of young men and women that have heard of the speech but were previously unfamiliar with the language and delivery.

Most people have heard of King’s speech. Some are familiar with the text, and a few have watched at least parts of his delivery.

The vast majority of Americans believe King’s speech was a brilliantly written appeal to what Lincoln referred to as our “better angels.” People know the dream metaphor as an inspirational call to arms for interracial justice.

While King certainly appealed to our better angels in his call for justice, the speech was far more than an aspirational statement.

It was a declaration of intent: a 20th Century justification for revolution. King modeled his message upon the appeals proven so powerful in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

King was more, far more, than a charismatic well-spoken Southern preacher. He was an intellectual genius that recognized the power of fusing non-violent action in the emerging age of television.

The March on Washington was the background staging for King to petition the Congress, White House, and the nation – through the media – with a demonstration of reasoning as well as the optics of an invading citizen-army.

King knew he could not win desegregation in the South without the involvement of Americans from all regions; he needed a way to touch the conscience and sensibilities of all Americans.

Standing the shadow of Lincoln, King called out the US for failing to honor its promissory note of freedom so long ago promised.

This swipe at our sense of propriety was effective; it went to the heart of the everyday American experience.

His description of the “fierce urgency” of immediate and sustained action as the best facilitator for advancement of freedom within America was a not so subtle ultimatum for the power elite.

Rather than scaring America with a vision of armed revolution King opted instead for a vision of collaboration, cooperation, and coordination. He offered a future that saw strength in diversity.

It was not by accident that King chose the dream analogy as his extended metaphor.

Dreams are powerful concepts. Dreams offer people opportunities for exploration of alternative realities without the constraints assigned to existing norms.

King understood that dreams had long provided utility in conveying potential realities in sacred as well as secular texts. He recognized the organizing value of myth and its relationship to the promise found through reinvention.

From the Jeremiad through Manifest Destiny, from the myths surrounding the Founders through FDRs “Four Freedoms,” Americans had long associated progress with achievement of our individual and collective dreams.

King knew Americans value the restorative narrative of an evolving American Dream.

King outlined his dream in terms consistent with sacred and secular beliefs of the time. It was a unifying dream of a renewed America: an inclusive, multicultural landscape aligned with our ideals, nationalistic heritage, and shared sense of ordered Creation.

King shared a dream that fit with the American conscience: a notion of a place and time where people are equal, safe, and united.

Each, every parent understood his call for a time when his children (like all children) would be judged by the “content of their character” rather than their skin color.

And King chose to end his address with an appeal to the sense of national purpose the Greatest Generation had answered before, during, and after World War II. His repetition of the ringing bells across the lands was a stirring call to action for something larger – something greater – than an individual.

Few speeches in the history of our nation, especially by a citizen-at-large, have done more to advance the ideals of our Republic.

Once upon a time citizens believed they could change the course of our nation – change the hearts and minds of the powerful – and realize a new America in their lifetime.

We still can, when we want change badly enough to fight for it.

Take a few minutes this August and review King’s speech. Consider its relevancy in our own times.

King was a visionary, an heir to Jefferson, Lincoln, and the men and women that provided us with the foundations for a More Perfect Union.

That day in August, 1963 a man and a movement seized a moment with a message that inspired a generation and facilitated an era of redefining Civil Rights in America.

What will we do with our moment?

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