[21 January 2010]
Can you imagine twittering from the ‘I have a dream speech’? Time and time again I have wondered what it must have felt like to be on ground during these life changing events, so here’s a bit of framing to help bring the speech to us today. Sites streaming audio, video or posting the full text of the “I Have a Dream” speech are too plentiful to warrant individual mention. Of note, however, are the rarer speeches made by King, including one he made to All India Radio upon his visit to the only land which proved the fertility of non-violent revolution in the hearts and minds of modern humanity. In the midst of the Cold War, and bodies bloodied in imperialism as the norm, King concluded: “Today we no longer have a choice between violence and non-violence; it is either non-violence, or non-existence.”
The “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the easiest iTunes Podcasts or YouTube videos to find, and one can even see related clips of Mahalia Jackson moving that day’s gathering with “How I Got Over”, or spot gay activist/march organizer Bayard Rustin in the crowd. These recordings of Mahalia Jackson inspirational and rare. Mahalia’s best recordings are of course those of her in a small rural chapel with other worshippers ready to hear her call. Oh if crowds had mobile video recording then, or would it have just been a distraction?!? Yet, this tradition of ‘call and response’ iterates that what the crowd says is integral to the message delivered out in front. Greek tragedies formalized this sort of response by placing an actual chorus on the stage- a group of people who spoke in union. Thinking back about this summer day where ‘change we can believe in’ came to America, here is a closer listen to all the people calling out “free at last”. The following is a transcript from Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at he March On Washington for Jobs and justice delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in late August 1963.
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, [‘Well’ a lady says] they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. [‘Hmph!’ cries a deep voice] This note was a promise that all men, [“All,” a man repeats in a crescendo] yes, black men as well as white men, [“All of ‘em” a woman says] would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [Here King pauses after drawing out this phrase, and a consistent hum can be heard coming from the crowd, people are generally moved by what is taking place].
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. [‘My Lord’ she repeats. ‘Umph’ a man moans.] Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, [a bunch of folks echoing ‘That’s right’ builds from the back] America has given the Negro people a bad check, [‘Mmph’ somebody groans emphatically] a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” [before King can finish delivering this last turn of phrase, a roar builds quickly from the back, and swells to a loud applause. ‘Preach! Preach!’ a high pitched lady sounds out over the clapping and slapping of hands. Others are laughing, whistling and generally calling out as if in praise. A group of men are barking at each other I the background over what’s just been said, as if adding to the testimony].
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. [‘My Lord’ that high pitched voice calls out, followed by a hearty laugh from what must have been a big-belly smoker. ‘No no’ the high-pitched voice yells this time. Apparently, the crowd is really pumped up at this point, and has still not quieted from King’s last emphasis. Though they are cheering, King’s rhythm is steady, and his beat resolute. This man very much means what he is saying, and it is clear that he has given the subject deep and penetrating consideration. Then, King says, as if one continuous word:] We-refuse-to-believe-that-there-are-insufficient-funds-in-the-great-vaults-of-opportunity-of-this-nation. [‘Oh no’ a elderly lady rolls around and says] So we have come to cash this check [‘Yes’ the high pitched woman yells in ear ecstasy]— a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom [‘Yes’ she says] and the security of justice [‘Yes, Lord’ she says and there is more applause. ‘Yeah yeah’ some man reels through his applauding].
We have also come to this hallowed spot [‘My Lord’ she says] to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. [‘Uh hm’, and King pauses] This is no time [‘My Lord’] to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. [King’s voice swells towards the end of that phrase, almost anticipating, or demanding a response from the crowd. A burst of laughter, and then applause ensues, and that lady is still calling out ‘Yes’ and ‘My Lord’] Now is the time, [‘Yes it is’ she says] to make real the promises of democracy [‘My Lord’ she says again as if finishing his every sentence, so true and important for recognition was each utterance and every word coming through King’s speech]. Now is the time [King demands] to rise from the dark-and-desolate-valley-of-segregation to the sunlit-path-of-racial-justice. Now is the time [King shouts! And the crowd whirls in laughter and applause, they are teased by his comments, and one senses the euphoria] to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood- Now is the time- [King says firmly, and here one would imagine him banging his fist against the podium, or raising the roof with the other, or perhaps in his trademark penetrating stare that speaks to our souls] to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation [King pauses] to overlook the urgency of the moment [he says with smite and pauses]. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent [he virtually sings “Negro’s” (perhaps ‘negroes’), and the crowd is again aroused, a women’s voice offers a quick ‘Yes’] will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. [Kings voice quells as if calling upon autumn to come. ‘My Lord’ the woman says calmly]. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. [‘Yes’ several say, a few briefly clapping]
An’ those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam [pause] and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual [King delivered each word with pause and consideration, free of any of the obvious sarcasm one might read from these words. He’s a preacher and is effectively calling out a warning and a rallying cry. Amandela! The crowd calls out, applauds and cheers profusely here. Here is a peace man calling for disruption].
On that day in ‘63, the people marched through The Mall and demanded rights. At a time when malls are exclusively for the cash we spend- including the one on capital hill—it is pressing that we try to imagine moments in our time when those who have come before us dared to ask us for more. May we rise from this strife, in Kings words.
Can you imagine the movement of the people with that amount of information flowing rapidly in cyberspace? Can you see the power in the people’s hands when Dr. King could march with the peoples in Birmingham, and star on a live interview over Skype, or that the sanitary workers in Memphis could send updates through tweets. He and Gandhi could have had video chats long before King made the trip here in 1959, long after Gandhiji’s assassination. Luckily, Bayard had been to India in 1948 and could more directly transmit the techniques of non-violence.
What if there had been cell phones in India under the rule of the Raj? Or elsewhere and else wise, might someone have leaked a video following Emmet Till’s kidnapping, mutilation and murder to the press in hopes that someone, anyone would have stood-up. Today this sort of media in America is more often used to leak sex-scandals, and King even suffered such propaganda at the hands of our own government. Fortunately these days places like Iran can deliver, and we, anyone empowered, can run to the people’s aid, standing with, and for justice. Can you imagine? [‘That’s right’ chimes the peanut gang]. Imagine all the people living for today.