Monday, April 04, 2011

He Had A Dream

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Mulberry Street in Memphis. This motel today hosts the National Civil Rights Museum.

MLK June 23, 1963, Cobo Hall, Detroit
Today's anniversary of this dreadful event is a good time to listen again to one of the most moving, most convincing, most forceful speeches King ever held during his career. With many good reasons, and only little exaggeration, this speech may well be one of the most important speeches in the history of political rhetorics and public discourse. What I am referring to is King's Detroit address on June 23, 1963, on the occasion of the »Great March on Detroit«, delivered in Cobo Hall. (for photos of the location and the event visit the »Virtual Motor City« of Wayne State University.) This »Detroit Speech« is – quite unjustly – not as generally known or broadly remembered as some others of King's speeches, although it contains, in the final part, a first version of the famous »I have a dream«-passage, which then was to become world-famous by being included in King's address at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington (August 28, 1963), little more than two months later.

JET, Sept. 26, 1963
The »Detroit Speech« was released by Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown Records, in September 1963 on Motown's first non-music LP, viz. Gordy LP # 906, simply entitled »The Great March to Freedom« with the addition »Rev. Martin Luther King Speaks« plus date and location. This was, for the time, a noteworthy event, because for one thing Gordy supported the black Civil Rights movement and knew King personally (and met him on a number of occasions). But on the other hand, Gordy was in 1963 still reluctant to trumpet his involvement: Too much open participation in the black freedom movement carried the danger of antagonizing white customers, whose purchasing power made Motown Records »The Sound of Young America«. For this hesitant attitude, Gordy was then criticized by black and white activists alike, the former reproaching him for doing too little, the latter for doing too much already. It was only after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and I say this without sarcasm, that Gordy finally made his mind up and positioned Motown openly in support of the freedom movement. And even in this he always kept an eye on the possible positive effect for promoting Motown and selling its output ... and the mood in the country had changed a lot between 1963 and 1968. How Gordy reacted to the assassination of Martin Luther King, on occassion of its first anniversary on April 4, 1969, can be gleaned from a notice in JET:

JET April 10, 1969, p. 58

In how far Motown was involved in the »Great March to Freedom« in Detroit, June 1963, is an interesting story; also the Gordy LP # 906 could not be released without some complications. Suzanne E. Smith in Dancing in the Street: Motown and Cultural Politics of Detroit (Cambridge, Mass. 1999) and Brian Ward in Just My Soul Respon- ding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations (Berkeley 1998) have reconstructed this story in detail, and you can read it in their accounts. I will come back to this argument on a future occasion. Today is not the day to do it. Today, you should listen to Martin Luther King.

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Important passages from the »Detroit Speech« by Martin Luther King (June 23, 1963) from the Gordy LP »The Great March to Freedom«:

Segregation is Wrong (3rd part of the speech)

The events of Birmingham, Alabama, and the more than sixty communities that have started protest movements since Birmingham, are indicative of the fact that the Negro is now determined to be free.
     For Birmingham tells us something in glaring terms. It says first that the Negro is no longer willing to accept racial segregation in any of its dimensions. For we have come to see that segregation is not only sociologically untenable, it is not only politically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Segregation is a cancer in the body politic, which must be removed before our democratic health can be realized.
     Segregation is wrong because it is nothing but a new form of slavery covered up with certain niceties of complexity. Segregation is wrong because it is a system of adultery perpetuated by an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality.
     And in Birmingham, Alabama, and all over the South and all over the nation, we are simply saying that we will no longer sell our birthright of freedom for a mess of segregated pottage. In a real sense, we are through with segregation now, henceforth, and forevermore.

The Urgency of the Moment (5th part of the speech)

But these events that are taking place in our nation tell us something else. They tell us that the Negro and his allies in the white community now recognize the urgency of the moment.
     I know we have heard a lot of cries saying: »Slow up and cool off.« We still hear these cries. They are telling us over and over again that you’re pushing things too fast, and so they’re saying: »Cool off.« Well, the only answer that we can give to that is that we’ve cooled off all too long, and that is the danger. There’s always the danger if you cool off too much that you will end up in a deep freeze.
     »Well,« they’re saying, »you need to put on brakes.« The only answer that we can give to that is that the motor’s now cranked up and we’re moving up the highway of freedom toward the city of equality, and we can’t afford to stop now because our nation has a date with destiny. We must keep moving.
     Then there is another cry. They say, »Why don’t you do it in a gradual manner?« Well, gradualism is little more than escapism and do-nothingism which ends up in stand-stillism. We know that our brothers and sisters in Africa and Asia are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence. And in some communities we are still moving at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a hamburger and a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
     And so we must say, now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to transform this pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our nation. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of racial justice. Now is the time to get rid of segregation and discrimination. Now is the time.
     And so this social revolution taking place can be summarized in three little words. They are not big words. One does not need an extensive vocabulary to understand them. They are the words »all,« »here,« and »now.« We want all of our rights, we want them here, and we want them now. This is the meaning.

The Price of Freedom / I Have a Dream (final part of the speech)

Now I do not want to give you the impression that it’s going to be easy. There can be no great social gain without individual pain. And before the victory for brotherhood is won, some will have to get scarred up a bit. Before the victory is won, some more will be thrown into jail. Before the victory is won, some, like Medgar Evers, may have to face physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children and their white brothers from an eternal psychological death, then nothing can be more redemptive. Before the victory is won, some will be misunderstood and called bad names, but we must go on with a determination and with a faith that this problem can be solved.
     And so I go back to the South not in despair. I go back to the South not with a feeling that we are caught in a dark dungeon that will never lead to a way out. I go back believing that the new day is coming. And so this afternoon, I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

     I have a dream that one day, right down in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to live together as brothers.
     I have a dream this afternoon that one day, one day little white children and little Negro children will be able to join hands as brothers and sisters.
     I have a dream this afternoon that one day, that one day men will no longer burn down houses and the church of God simply because people want to be free.
     I have a dream this afternoon that there will be a day that we will no longer face the atrocities that Emmett Till had to face or Medgar Evers had to face, that all men can live with dignity.
     I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children, that my four little children will not come up in the same young days that I came up within, but they will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
     I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job.
     Yes, I have a dream this afternoon that one day in this land the words of Amos will become real and »justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.«
     I have a dream this evening that one day we will recognize the words of Jefferson that »all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.« I have a dream this afternoon.
     I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
     I have a dream this afternoon that the brotherhood of man will become a reality in this day. And with this faith I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair.

     With this faith, I will go out with you and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.
     With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!

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