MLK's 'Dream': How the Speech Became Popular

The way it came to define King's legacy is rooted in our nation's attitude toward black history.

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And with the establishment of the holiday, the notion of the dream became synonymous with King's life and legacy. It only makes sense that, somewhere along the way, the speech began to be known as "I Have a Dream," to match the theme of the campaign marketing King's message.

Why It Worked and Why It Stuck

In order to understand why the turns of phrase about content of character and cross-racial friendship resonate with America as a whole, you also have to understand what doesn't resonate, says Jeffries.

"One of the core elements in this speech is when he talks about reparations -- this notion that African Americans are owed something by the government because of the way they have been discriminated against, that you can't ignore race in the solutions. People don't talk about that. People also don't talk about the undergirding economic analysis that he's offering," Jeffries says. "He offers an economic critique of American capitalism and poverty. We're still not prepared to deal with the fullness of King's radicalism ... with the full, radical aspects of what the March on Jobs and Freedom was about. All that is completely lost, and all that comes out in the wash is the dream."

That's because, unlike the other parts of the speech, the dream-refrain sound bite was the perfect vehicle to transform King into a universally adored figure. "It's not really a critique of the American past," says Jeffries. "Anyone can dream, anyone can be hopeful, anyone can be looking to the future."

Then there's part of the refrain, which, when taken out of context, seems a lot like a nod to colorblindness. Beyond being uncontroversial, this bit actually lends itself to hijacking by those who arguably have an agenda that's the opposite of King's. "From the mid-1980s and on, you will begin to see political conservatives take this idea of colorblindness, flip it on its head [in opposition to affirmative action, for example] and say, 'Hey, here's this civil rights leader, and he wanted it,' " Jeffries explains.

Blair L.M. Kelley, an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, argues that taking the line about "content of their character" to mean we shouldn't talk specifically about race is simply not an accurate reading of the speech. This view, she says, is part and parcel of an incomplete remembrance of King. It's at the expense, she says, of a focus on later King speeches, when, for example, "He reminded his audience that although black people might have been poor, collectively they had power." You don't hear much about that during Black History Month.

In some ways, the efforts to get King a place on the national agenda were a success, Jeffries says. After all, 30 years after the establishment of the holiday, we all know who he was, even if our remembrance isn't complete. And the hard truth is that if King supporters had been less strategic in their PR campaign, it's possible that he would have neither national honor nor a sound bite of any kind to accompany it.

Will the rest of King's legacy ever be as well known and widely appreciated as those images of black and white children holding hands and the easily malleable words about "content of their character"?

We can dream.