Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

"I Have a Dream". Commentary.


Reverend Martin Luther King, 1963.

I Have a Dream is one of the most famous speeches ever delivered, although it is not properly a speech, but rather a sermon. It has the characteristic of most famous speeches: a powerful sentence, which in this case is also an anaphora, or a leitmotiv. Hence, it gathers the two ingredients which generally constitute famous speeches: that which made J.F.Kennedy's Ich bin ein Berliner or de Gaulle's Je vous ai compris! famous, and that which immortalised Churchill's We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets etc.

It is also famous because it is deeply linked with the period during which it was delivered, in the mid 60's, at a time when the Civil Rights movement was at the top of its activity and when segregation in the Southern states was on the verge of being made unconstitutional.

Yet, the core of its immortality certainly lies in the very grammar of the leitmotiv: people generally say I had a dream, or I always have the same dream; using the simple present for such an utterance was a splendid orator's trick, especially since MLK made it even more striking by adding today at the end of the phrase. It gives an actual permanence to the dream he describes and insists very strongly on the personality of the speaker: that is not a dream you have just the way you have breakfast or a shower or any ordinary dream, but a dream that is part and parcel of yourself.

Martin Luther King was basically a preacher, and his political involvement was strongly marked by his first raison d'être. That speech/sermon demonstrates the dualism which made him a prominent figure of the history of America, a country where religion takes an important place, for better and for worse. Let us not forget that the motto of the USA, which can be read on every dollar bill, is in God We Trust; let us not forget either, that the last words of the newly elected president's oath are so help me God. Those features are the characteristics of the speech: it is at the same time religious and political, and fundamentally American. It is radically different from the position of Malcolm X, a religious man also, since he was a leader of the Black Muslims and a hajji, but a political leader who took as much distance as he could from America, advocating total separation between Blacks and Whites and denouncing the Christian hypocrisy of the WASP's. It is also radically different of course from the positions of the Black Panthers who, in the same period, took a straight political side, with a Marxist background, diametrically opposed to the American creed.

There is no clear construction in the sermon; it is more or less organised like any Black baptist sermon, meant to raise emotion in the congregation by mixing authentic human feelings and religious images. Of course, certain stanzas are more political, and others more religious, but the general picture is that of a blending of the two.

The first stanza (1-11) is more political, because it clearly refers to specific events, anchored in the reality of those struggling and organising 60's: the difficulties and frustrations of the moment (1), the state of Mississippi, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression (10), and so is the second stanza, referring directly to the Governor of the state of Alabama (17). What is to remark, anyhow, in the first stanza is the explicit allegiance that MLK pledges to the USA: It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream is the last sentence of the paragraph that precedes the extract. He even goes as far as quoting the preamble of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that men are created equal (3), qualifying, and that is one of the aspects of the blending of the religious and the political in the speech, that sentence as a creed. He obviously makes a mistake here, as the text he quotes is everything but a religious creed, based on clear-cut philosophical and political considerations. Even in the clearest political aspects, the speech remains religious; biblical images surface everywhere: table of brotherhood, (7) oasis, (9) every valley … every hill, (21) , and some bombastic utterances appear, such as whose governor's lips are presently dripping (17), together with classic sermon-like phrases: sisters and brothers (19).

The third stanza (21-24), is strictly religious in its tone and vocabulary and develops the mainstream of the speech, a basic Christian concept: what is bad today will be good tomorrow. Malcolm X criticised this concept by saying it is a miracle that a nation of black people has so fervently continued to believe in a turn-the-other-cheek and heaven-for-you-after-you-die philosophy. MLK uses here a parable, in the purest style of preachers, to describe the better world of his dream, and he does it much in the way Jesus did it, by using antitheses (But many of the first shall be last; and the last first – Mark, 11, 31.) The remarkable thing here is that the metaphorical basis of his parable is geographic, valley, hill and mountain, places, and that this again is deeply rooted in the American religious mind, because of the overpowering dimension of space in the American tradition.

The fourth stanza (25-35) is once again a blending of religious and political ideas. the political is present in that I will go back to the South with (25), the jangling discords of our nation (27) and above all, in direct reference to the Civil Rights Movement and its Freedom Riders, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together (29). Yet, the religious, both in style and content, still predominates: anaphora of with this faith (25-27-28), symphony of brotherhood (28), and the last verse (32), which leads to a quotation of a, quite surprisingly, obviously White psalm, as it deals with pilgrims. Here again, MLK refers directly to the American Dream, and to the Pilgrim Fathers, the founders of the country.

The last stanza (36-52) is composed in a typical musical style, as most Black sermons are (one may certainly be reminded here of James Brown in The Blues Brothers), unifying all the religious and racial components of America, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, in a single hosannah of hope, enjoining the congregation to sing along the old Negro spiritual. It opens on another glorification of America as a great nation (31), tempered, it is true, by the form of the utterance: And if America is to be a great nation, but nevertheless, still quite patriotic in essence, and followed by another variation on the theme of space: from every mountainside, from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, once again shaped as an anaphora.

To conclude, one may be shocked by the radical positions of Malcolm X when he advocates total separation between Blacks and Whites, and authentically moved and touched by MLK's dream of hope. Yet, let us not forget that they were both assassinated and that things haven't really changed. We have come a long way from the Black sprinters' gloved fists in the Olympic Games of Mexico to today's black athletes who drape themselves in the Star Spangled Banner, but it does not mean that the situation of Blacks in America has become any better. If one takes a look at the figures of employment, crime, poverty, disease, one is forced to consider that Malcolm X was right in 1965 when he said: The Western world's most learned diplomats have failed to solve this grave race problem. Her learned legal experts have failed. Her sociologists have failed. Her civil leaders have failed. Her fraternal leaders have failed. The most tangible feature of MLK's sermon/speech, that can be analysed in terms of poetics and grammar, its very leitmotiv, is perhaps to analyse in basic terms of semantics: a dream, and only a dream.

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