The August 24 March on Washington this past weekend commemorated the 1963 March, which culminated in the first Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964, but the actual 50th anniversary is today, August 28, 2013. Fifty years ago today Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech (http://www.archives.gov/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf), which, along with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm), is perhaps the best known piece of political oratory in American history.
King directly ties his speech to the American Dream and reminds us how that dream has been denied to most African Americans since they first set foot on American soil.
When we think of the American Dream, most of us think first of economic prosperity, or, or at least the opportunity to achieve it. We think of “the land of opportunity,” as countless immigrants have seen us, and the “rags to riches” myth of upward social mobility. I say “myth” because, while it captures a universal aspiration and is a widespread belief, its reality has been denied to as many, probably more, than have achieved it, however hard-working and virtuous they may have been.
Yet the American Dream represents more than economic success; it also stands for political freedom, social equality, and personal fulfillment. And King’s speech references those values as much, even more, than it does the dream of material prosperity.
If it is as famous as the Gettysburg Address, what characteristics does it share with Lincoln’s best known speech? They both rest on what might be better called the American Promise than the American Dream. They both expressly quote from the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and King cites the “unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
While Lincoln does not name the blight of slavery, he ties the principle of equality to “the unfinished work which those who fought here have so nobly advanced,” “the great task remaining before us,” and “our increased devotion to that great cause” for which so many have died. Lincoln calls for “a new birth of freedom.” Without saying so directly, he frames the Civil War as a struggle to fulfill that original promise of full political and social equality.
King, on the other hand, directly names the failures of that promise a century after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863—“segregation,” “discrimination,” “poverty,” and “police brutality.” But, like Lincoln, he calls for a new resolve to fulfill the original promise of the American Dream—the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
Both speakers are addressing but half the nation, Lincoln, the Union, still in the midst of war with the Confederacy; and King, African Americans and their white allies in the grip of struggle with segregationists and white supremacists.
Lincoln’s rhetorical task is somewhat easier. As he dedicates a burial ground for the Union dead, he is able to freely use “our” and “we” without excluding any of his Union audience, establishing an unqualified identification with his listeners that serves to unify them in their shared experience, values, and grand national cause.
King’s audience consists of both African Americans and white supporters. He can use “our” and “we” when referring to their shared values and civil rights struggle, but often refers to African Americans in third person when referring to their experiences of racial injustice. He sets aside a part of his speech to acknowledge “our white brothers,” who have come to realize that “their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” And the dream is expressed in terms of full inclusion for all, not only in the segregationist South, but also in “our Northern cities,” “the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire,” “the mighty mountains of New York,” and “the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.” “Our” and “we” shift back and forth from civil rights supporters to African Americans to all Americans.
Lincoln makes no reference to the enemies of freedom and equality in the slave-holding South. The lines of war are clearly drawn and well understood. His focus throughout his speech is the noble ideal of the Union cause. The ignoble cause of the Confederacy is merely implied by unspoken comparison.
King, on the other hand, is concerned, not only with the legal segregation of the South but with the “slums and ghettoes” of the North. And while he invokes the history of slavery and the “vicious racists” in the South, his dream is large enough to include all Americans sitting together “at the table of brotherhood,” joining hands “as sisters and brothers.” He includes segregationists and racists in his dream of “all God’s children,” including blacks and whites, “Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” singing together as equals “the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God Almighty, We are free at last.”
Thus as Lincoln transcends the divisions of the Civil War by focusing on the ideal of a nation united in freedom and equality, so King transcends the divisions of race by focusing on a dream that is all inclusive, even to the point of including white people in the words of a Negro spiritual.
The language of the two speeches is very different. Lincoln’s is more solemn and stately, as befitting the dedication of a national cemetery, and more abstract, as befitting, perhaps, the more ceremonial occasion. King’s language is more concrete, metaphorical, poetic, emotive, and rousing as he seeks to mobilize a movement in pursuit of legal redresses for a long history of suffering. Lincoln is not making an abolitionist speech, but rather seeking to strengthen Union resolve to see the war through to its end. King does not have the standing of national office from which to speak and must use his language to establish himself as a credible leader and to inspire his followers by putting memorable words to the dream in all their hearts.
Lincoln uses the language of a civic leader while King uses that of a preacher and an activist. Yet their argument is the same: the American Promise remains unfulfilled and its realization is worthy of sacrifice. Our nation’s greatness, our nation’s future, and our nation’s endurance depend upon it.
Both also see themselves as renewing the original American Promise, both invoking the Declaration of Independence, King invoking the Emancipation Proclamation. Taken together the two speeches mark historical milestones in the ongoing effort to realize the Dream.