Friday, September 27, 2013

Gary Younge - The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King's Dream

Published to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jnr's famous "I have a Dream" speech, Gary Younge's new book is more than an examination of those famous words. It is a celebratory and occasionally critical account of the birth and growth of the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King's role within it.

The speech, as Younge points out, was not just made at a huge demonstration. It was made in a year that would see immense change. It was "delivered in a year that started with Alabama governor George Wallace... declaring, 'Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,' and ended with President Kennedy's assassination.

Within in a year, Lyndon Johnson had passed the Civil Rights Act, which many of those who heard King's speech would see as a limited step forward. King himself was transformed by the speech, which while it was broadcast live and heard by many, only really received the iconic status it has today with the his assassination. Younge quotes one of King's colleagues as saying "Though he was extremely well known before he stepped up to the lectern, he stepped down on the other side of history."

King was a polished speaker. Younge tells us that in 1963 alone, King made 350 speeches. He takes us through the speech sentence by sentence, showing how King's training as a preacher, his politics and his religion are used at key points, to raise the crowd up, to give power to his rhetoric and to draw the listener in. No wonder that JFK remarked on hearing it, "He's damned good. Damned good."

But the speech was of its time and place. The movement was evolving and growing, but so was King. The march's culmination was King's "dream" but the speakers themselves went on to reception at the Whitehouse. That may well have been a step forward, but the links between sections of the Civil Rights movement and the democratic party helped to dampen down the more radical demands. One of the strengths of this book is that it draws this out - from the secret switch that would have allowed the US state to shut down militant speakers, to plans by the march organisers to drown out more radical action themselves with calming singing by the stewards. Indeed, right until the very last moment, key figures in the coalition that had organised the march were desperately trying to avoid radical rhetoric from their own speakers that might undermine the, essentially passive, message of the march.

King is most famous for his strategy of passive resistance, of non-violent action. Many people at the time, and since criticised this approach for being unrealistic in the face of the powers of the street. There is of course truth in this, but Younge makes the point that for all ones criticisms of King, one cannot discount Martin Luther King. To do that would be "to effectively dismiss the most prominent and popular proponent of civil rights."

King himself stood for far more than civil rights. Younge notes, for instance, that he was a leader that also wanted government intervention to help the poor, who attacked the US government for their violence, and who, towards the end of his life was beginning to look to wider social struggles. Young quotes one current congressman, who knew King arguing that "[King's] speech four years later at the the Riverside Church in New York, in which he condemned the war in Vietnam and talked about the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, was by far the best speech of his life in terms of sheer tone and substance."

It is fascinating and perhaps futile, to speculate about who King might have become had he not been assassinated. Younge avoids this, and looks instead at King's legacy, or more importantly, the US today. A country still riven by class differences, poverty, war and racism. A country that has twice elected a black President, but a country where in 2004 there were more Black men without the vote than in 1870, the year Black males got a vote. Black male life expectancy in Washington DC is lower than that in the Gaza strip, and years of Obama's leadership have meant worsening conditions for those at the bottom of US society, particularly black people.

Ultimately, King's speech was about a dream. It's power at the time lay in its "nebulous" demands as much as its rhetoric. As such it could be opened to "interpretations that are not only varied but arguable contradictory" says Younge. A veteran civil rights activist quoted points out that the speech was "easily digestible by a white audience and more palatable to them, as opposed to his antiwar speeches and critiques of capitalism". That said, King was part of a movement that began a struggle which did make an enormous difference. Others, often with more radical methods, strategies and ideas, were to follow.

Younge muses on what makes great speeches, and indeed whose speeches are actually heard:

"The speeches we believe to be most decisive can only come from those speeches we have heard about. Those given by a poor woman in Swahili, Kurdish or Quechua are far less likely to make it through the filter of race, sex, class and language than those given by wealthy white men in English, French or Spanish."

Sadly, as this indicates, the struggle that King gave his life for remains to be won. Fifty years after he outlined his "dream", a dream that remains inspiring and powerful, millions of people still have lives blighted by poverty, racism, war and unemployment.

King's struggle, and hence this book, began a discussion of what sort of movement is needed to change things. It's a powerful book, which perhaps leaves too many such questions unanswered. Nonetheless it is an excellent start for further debate.

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