Gary Younge’s ‘The Speech': New book tells backstory of ‘I Have a Dream’ address

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“I am happy to join with you today on what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” spoke Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he began what was to become one of the most beloved speeches of all-time.

Those words – and the moments that surround them — have been dissected and analyzed in Gary Younge‘s new book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream.

Younge’s latest work reflects on critical moments leading up to King’s powerful — and unexpectedly iconic – “I Have a Dream” speech on that warm day on August 28, 1963.

After spending over a year researching, Younge — a British journalist and columnist for The Guardian — retold the troubling story of a racially torn America and Dr. King’s plight to deliver justice and empower black America.

Younge provides new insight into the roles of key civil rights leaders in a captivating story that is eloquently written and punctuated with surprising detail.

More importantly, the book sheds new light on Dr. King and paints him in a way that portrays the true grit and determination that stuck with him like the many followers he inspired and led.

However, between the book’s perforated pages, Younge argues that Dr. King’s speech is widely misunderstood – and makes it his mission to accurately portray the occurrences which led to some of the most historic moments of the civil rights movement.

Younge talked to theGrio about his latest work, which is published on the heels of the 50 anniversary of Dr. King’s delivery.

theGrio: What inspired you to tell the story behind Dr. King’s speech? 

Gary Younge: I have been intrigued by how people of different political persuasions in America make sense of that speech. How a speech that when it was delivered was not overwhelmingly popular in the country at the time and how that would become a national treasure.

As a black Briton — my parents are from Barbados, I was born in Britain — I was raised with that speech and it has always intrigued me to the degree which that delivery has become a global speech.

In a shorter, and more condensed version, tell us – what is the story behind Dr. King’s speech?

I would say it’s two things: One is the political story, which is this incredible year in American history – actually, an incredible six months where the grassroots of the civil rights movement decided that they’ve had enough and leaders are rushing to catch up with the grassroots and this is the basis under which the march takes place.

And then there’s the actual story behind it, which is quite moving; the dream sequence was not originally in the speech but while King is giving the speech, Mahaila Jackson, from behind him, who heard him do the “I Have a Dream” section in Detroit a few months earlier, shouts to him “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream!” He continues and she shouts again. We don’t know whether he heard her, but we do know that at that point, he shifts the text to his left on the podium and in the words of Clarence Jones who was there, his body language changed from a martyr to a preacher and he starts to deliver the “I Have a Dream” refrain, which arguably made the speech famous.

King was the last speaker at the event and it has been reported that many who attended were not expecting a delivery quite like this. Aside from it being a great speech, what made this speech so iconic?

It’s the most eloquent articulation of America’s last great moral victory, which was getting rid of segregation. The speech comes at this very particular moment and it is rare. But also I think, that when King is assassinated, which is within the five years between him giving the speech and his assassination, the speech is not revered in the way that it is now. And I think that what happened after his assassination is that America needed to find a way to remember him.

There is something in the speech for everybody.  It’s deeply rooted in the American dream, delivered in the shadow of Lincoln, entered the Negro spiritual and as such is a very patriotic speech. It’s delivered in the black vernacular, at this crowning moment of progressive coalition making.

What was one of the more shocking things you learned in writing this novel?  Something that may shock readers as well…

Two things that surprised me were first of all, the degree to which African-Americans became impatient with their civil rights leadership that year. I hadn’t fully grasped that. And the other thing is the degree to which very few people who knew Dr. King regard this as their favorite speech. If you ask anyone who campaigned with him or knew him well, did you think that we wouldn’t be talking about this speech 50 years later? They all say no. They say he gave a lot of good speeches, but they didn’t think that that would be the speech for the ages.

Why do you believe Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is misunderstood? Do people today interpret the speech in a different way than was originally intended?

Absolutely. I think particularly conservatives like to interpret through one line the notion that he was calling for people to be colorblind and not to take the legacy of racism into account. I think also its one of those; it’s the most loved but least well-known speeches. People don’t always know what’s in it — as well as being patriotic, it’s also an indictment of American racism. He’s calling for redress and I think people don’t fully grasp that. I think partly because it’s not well-known and partly because some people don’t want to understand it, but I think very few people understand it as it was intended actually.

Through your research, and in your opinion, what do you think Dr. King would make of the progress we have made 50 years later?

That’s always difficult in the shoes of man like Dr. King. Given what we know, in terms of his stated opinions, I think he would be, broadly speaking, unimpressed. If you look at the jails, unemployment and the discrepancies between black and whites, the discrepancies in wealth are greater than it was then,  if he looks at the schools and so on I think that he would be unimpressed by the progress that’s been made. If he looks at the size of the black middle class and the presence of Obama in the White House and the number of black Americans who have voted, then he would be the first, I’m sure, to see that some progress has been made. So, I think he would recognize the advances that have been made but I think he would be looking for more progress than has been made.

Do you believe there is anyone today who holds the similar influence to the one King held? Would you put President Obama under a similar status?

No, mostly because there’s no movement to sustain him (Obama). I think it’s important to understand Dr. King’s role not just as an individual but as part of movement and that movement doesn’t exist anymore. Obama has the ability, through his oratory to reach black and white people in a way that few have before him. Arguably Clinton did. But Obama doesn’t come from a movement, he comes from a tradition and so it’s not the same thing. King was talking about bringing truth to power. Obama is power, he’s the president, and so they have very different roles.

What are some key lessons you hope readers take away from this book?

That they understand that history is always more complex than it is presented as — and that the civil rights movement was about more than just one man and the speech was about more than just one address.

Younge’s book, “The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream” is now available.

Follow Lilly Workneh on Twitter @Lilly_Works