“Sundquist’s careful, thoughtful study unearths new and fascinating evidence of the rhetorical traditions in King’s speech.”—Drew D. Hansen, author of The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation
“I have a dream”—no words are more widely recognized, or more often repeated, than those called out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. King’s speech, elegantly structured and commanding in tone, has become shorthand not only for his own life but for the entire civil rights movement. In this new exploration of the “I Have a Dream” speech, Eric J. Sundquist places it in the history of American debates about racial justice—debates as old as the nation itself—and demonstrates how the speech, an exultant blend of grand poetry and powerful elocution, perfectly expressed the story of African American freedom.
This book is the first to set King’s speech within the cultural and rhetorical traditions on which the civil rights leader drew in crafting his oratory, as well as its essential historical contexts, from the early days of the republic through present-day Supreme Court rulings. At a time when the meaning of the speech has been obscured by its appropriation for every conceivable cause, Sundquist clarifies the transformative power of King’s “Second Emancipation Proclamation” and its continuing relevance for contemporary arguments about equality.
“The [‘I Have a Dream’] speech and all that surrounds it—background and consequences—are brought magnificently to life . . . In this book he gives us drama and emotion, a powerful sense of history combined with illuminating scholarship.”—The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
To this day, nobody knows what prompted Martin Luther King Jr. to depart from his prepared remarks during the August 28, 1963, March on Washington and deliver what is probably the most famous impromptu speech in American history. Was it the realization that the 40-year-old preacher from Atlanta hadn't yet connected with his audience? Was it the manifest destiny he felt as a child, that one day he would "have me some big words" like the preacher of his own church? Or was it the provocation of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who called to King to "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin!" According to Sundquist (ToWake the Nation), not even the master orator could put a finger on his extemporization. "I started out reading the speech," King recalled, then "all of a sudden this thing came out of me." The author investigates the origin of King's powerful words and places them in the context of JFK's political maneuverings, the powerful new medium of television news and the complicated strategy behind the simple march. Exhaustively researched, this book delivers an exegesis of the speech and a captivating account of King's motivations and turbulent times.