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

Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters at the 1963 March on Washington. (AFP/Getty Images)
Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters at the 1963 March on Washington. (AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Was the Martin Luther King Jr. speech we now know as "I Have a Dream" masterfully composed and delivered? Of course it was.

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Was the moment in August 1963 when it was delivered historic? Absolutely. 

But does any of that explain why the "dream"— King's well-known vision of black children and white children joining hands "as sisters and brothers," judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" — remains such a defining part of our memory of him? Does it tell the full story of how those aspirational phrases became essentials of even the most elementary Black History Month lesson? Or why Time magazine chose the theme "One Man. One March. One Speech. One Dream" for this year's commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom?

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Probably not.

Neither the standout rhetoric that has earned King's address a spot among top American speeches nor the landmark event that provided its backdrop fully explains our collective fixation on what's known as "the dream refrain," the portion of the speech that begins with King's introduction of his vision of interpersonal racial harmony and concludes with "all flesh shall see it together."

To understand how that chunk of about 300 words evolved in 50 years from a recycled sound bite to ubiquitous shorthand for King's entire legacy, you have to understand a little about the address itself — and even more about Americans' finicky attitude toward black history.

Just One Piece of "The Snickers Bar of Rhetoric"

The "I have a dream" bit was well-received at the time, but no more than the speech as a whole, says Hasan Jeffries, professor of history at the Ohio State University, who notes that the refrain was a detour from King's planned remarks and the speech was actually titled "Normalcy, No More." And it was just one of many high points in what Geoffrey Klinger, associate professor of communications at DePauw University, says is one of the strongest speeches in the history of American public address — or, as he calls it, "the Snickers bar of rhetoric."

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Beginning with language echoing Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, juxtaposing the Emancipation Proclamation with "the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free" and announcing the "promissory note" owed to black Americans, as well as the country's responsibility to "make good on that bad check," King expertly used "borrowed ethos," calling up sources ranging from America's founding documents to patriotic songs, Klinger says. Even the Old Testament passages were wisely selected for broad, Christian and Jewish appeal and freedom-seeking themes.

Then there's the speech's generous use of archetypal metaphor, rich with vivid imagery and dramatic comparisons: the "quicksands of racial injustice" versus the "solid rock of brotherhood"; the "jangling discords of our nation" versus the "beautiful symphony of brotherhood"; the "sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent" compared to the "invigorating autumn of freedom and equality." 

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King also leaned on anaphora — or repetition — to drive home his point, says Klinger. But the dream refrain is just one of many uses of the technique. King begins with a reminder to America of the "fierce urgency of now." This leads into a "now is the time" refrain that dovetails into the "quicksands of racial injustice." He sets up his "We are not satisfied and will not be satisfied" with the rhetorical question, "When will you be satisfied?"

He does it again with his state-specific message of hope ("Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed"). And the final section, in which he paints the entire geography of the nation with the refrain "Let freedom ring" — uttering the phrase no fewer than 10 times — King builds momentum and harnesses the audience's enthusiasm for his final and most controversial push: an insistence on equality for blacks in the South.

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In other words, the speech wasn't lacking in specifics, style or content and was designed to evoke passion for racial justice. And it would have been tough to guess on that day which parts would be most remembered. It could just as easily have gone down in history as the "Let Freedom Ring," "Now Is the Time," "Quicksands of Racial Injustice" or "We Are Not Satisfied and Will Not Be Satisfied" speech as "I Have a Dream."

After all, the address as a whole — let alone the dream refrain — did not make big news on that day back in 1963. The post-march headlines were much more "They Didn't Burn Down D.C." than "Martin Luther King Shared His Dream," according to Jeffries.

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Even five years later, when King was assassinated, the vision he'd described wasn't universally mourned. Jeffries points out that at the time of his death, King was the most unpopular African American at the time, according to any major poll. "So when he died in 1968, white folks, especially in the South, weren't losing any sleep," he says, "and they certainly weren't saying, 'We lost the dream.' They certainly weren't saying, 'The dream is dead.' "

A Marketing Campaign for King's Memory

But the framing of King's legacy through the lens of the dream refrain began in the immediate aftermath of his assassination. Lyndon B. Johnson was among countless others who eulogized and memorialized King by referencing his "dream," often being quite vague about what, exactly, that dream was, says Jeffries.

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This part of the 1963 speech got even more airtime in the subsequent years. The organizing effort to establish a national holiday in King's honor — which launched just days after his death when Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced federal legislation, and continued with Coretta Scott King's dogged work to promote his life's work through the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change — "definitely played up and played off of the dream refrain," says Jeffries.

"They used that moment in that speech to sort of market him. Not in a cynical way. Not in a way that Coca-Cola markets. But they were genuinely committed to this national holiday as a way to keep the social-justice agenda of MLK alive, and they chose to make this dream concept the major tool," says Jeffries. He adds that the ephemera promoting King's legacy in that nationwide lobbying effort leave no doubt that the dream refrain was used as "a moment that could resonate with the most people."

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That focus on universal appeal is explicit in Coretta Scott King's remarks after President Ronald Reagan finally signed the King Holiday Bill into law on Nov. 2, 1983. "This is not a black holiday; it is a people's holiday," she said.

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.

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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.

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"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."

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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.

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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"?

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We can dream.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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