Jonathan Rieder’s The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me is a careful close reading of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetoric and register that presents a chameleon-like King, a master of what we’d today call “code-switching.” Rieder, who’s made an ongoing study of “Dr. King the sermonizer,” has written several pieces this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Below, in an excerpt from The Word of the Lord is Upon Me, Rieder considers how King inserted “an intimate black voice” into a speech consciously directed at white Americans.
As with “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King’s performance of “I Have a Dream” at the March infused a civil religious occasion with aspects of blackness. Those dual elements permeated the double structure of “Dream”: the two audiences of nation and “my people,” the latter addressed through side conversation; the styles of fervent preaching and civil religious oratory; the contrast of prepared text and free-form improvising; and the thematic interplay of blackness and humanity, exile and belonging.
“Dream” earned its iconic status as an emblem of universalism. Its civil religious context was given in King’s first sentences, which depicted the event as “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” With its “fivescore years ago” beginning, the next sentence presaged what soon became explicit: Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, another civil religious fixture in whose “symbolic shadow we stand today.” The physical setting on the Mall gave resonance to King’s celebration of the “magnificent words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.” His chant toward the end—“Let freedom ring”—envisioned not simply the nation joined together, but the people for the first time making the nation whole by ringing the chimes of freedom together. And the very final words of course celebrated the beloved community of “all of God’s children”—blacks and whites; Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.
The vision of a redemptive national identity fit with the generic form of the march—petitioning the government for redress of grievances—and the strategic aim of gaining passage of the upcoming civil rights bill. This was the practical context of the soaring rhetoric. Still, this plunged the prophetic movement into the midst of hardheaded calculation. In a White House meeting at which civil rights leaders sought to get presidential support for the march, Vice President Lyndon Johnson offered this calculus: they needed 25 swing votes in the Senate to pull off a civil rights bill. President Kennedy, always in sway to realpolitik, focused on the practical imperatives as well. The political need to enlist support among the broader public and the march organizers’ sensitivities to the upcoming vote on the civil rights bill framed the larger process of composing a majestic occasion.
These anxious estimations were built into the structure of the March, which was orchestrated to transform white opinion. The organizers had imposed a process of shaping and veto to filter out any disturbing notes and ensure maximum public relations payoff. There would be no “Black Power” chants or discomfiting challenges, no undignified talk that might roil mainstream opinion. Before Kennedy reluctantly came around to endorse the march, he insisted on many conditions. Meanwhile, John Lewis’s original draft of his speech, a militant critique of Kennedy and liberals, did not survive the sifting process. As King’s urgings to Lewis make clear, he too brought caution to the drafting process, and he intended his own contribution to be directed at whites. As Taylor Branch put it, King’s speech would call for his “clearest diction” and his “stateliest baritone.”
Given all this political trimming, it is not surprising that “I Have a Dream” would come to stand for a certain sentimentality about race. Such pressures may also explain the dichotomy that marked King’s speech. In the minds of many seasoned King observers, the first half had a flat quality, and much in the prepared speech was inelegant. None of the final peroration, with its “I Have a Dream” refrain, appeared in the written version circulated to the press and key officials before the event. King had rejected the theme of the Dream as too complex to address in his allotted eight minutes.
So it is even more striking that King managed to break out of all the caution, offering up a run of prophetic oratory that did not overwhelm the civil religious format but commingled with it. In the end, if “Dream” did not unflaggingly adhere to the mode of universalism, it did not entirely repudiate that vision either. Imbuing classic images of redeemer nation and providential freedom with blackness, King ended up creating a novel “particular kind of universalism.”
King himself had requested the black musical frame around his words. He brought the voice of the black ancestors into this white event, asking Mahalia Jackson to sing “I Been ’Buked and Scorned.” The Afro-Christian character of the song and the nonstandard grammar of its title prefigured King’s reading of the American experience in the light of a particular black experience of it. “Long night of their captivity” signaled the tension between that history and civil religious pieties, as did the gap between the promise of the dream and its fulfillment. King also insinuated a telling marker of separateness early on, a reference to “black exiles”: “The Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.” A subtle distinction—King’s dream was “rooted in” but did not coincide with the American Dream—added distancing.
Beyond these signals, King inserted an intimate black voice in a critical turn away from his white audience. With President Kennedy following the advance text over in the White House and the entire nation listening in, King spoke directly to blacks as he adopted the frame of “my people.” “But there is something I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice.”
Is this “private conversation” truly directed at King’s people? Or is it a performance for white people to reassure them? Or both? Who can be sure? But whether King was using his warning about racial bitterness to pressure whites into accepting a moderate alternative or to confer virtue on the churched part of the movement, the message was clear: disavowal of bitterness yet a knowing empathy for its source. King was walking a tightrope here—between the black audience and the white one, between decrying bitterness and the danger of passivity. Despite the appeal to a biracial army, the admission that “we cannot walk alone,” and the mention of our “white brothers,” King immediately added a rousing invocation of the Negro’s “marvelous new militancy.” Remaining in the collective voice of an ethnic “we,” King exhorted his people, “We must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
King returned from his aside to the nation within the nation, the black exiles languishing in America, to speak to the larger nation, ambiguously taking the edge off the black voice with an “us” defined as “devotees of civil rights.” He conjured up a conversation with a generic white interlocutor who echoed the old Birmingham question, “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’”
King’s rhetoric of time here directly opposed the question of time posed in much of his black talk, where he heightened immediacy to galvanize action or raised the question “How long?” to buttress resolve, followed by the reassuring “not long” that will redeem all the sacrifice. Nor did King repeat the earlier phrase in “Dream” in which, in another echo of “Letter,” he “remind[ed] America” of the fierce “urgency of now.” The answer to the white questioner is neither justification for whites nor mobilization for blacks but something different: conveying black restiveness, frustration, and resolve to whites. Turning his voice into a collective instrument of his people, King let loose with the chant, “We can never be satisfied,” whose rudeness was reinforced by its blatancy, by the repetition that displayed indomitable black will, and by the assertive attachment of conditions to the achievement of satisfaction.
This refusal to go along unless conditions were met picked up on his earlier implied threat (“Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam” are in for “a rude awakening”). As King enumerated the conditions, he fell into a version of the most confessional series in “Letter,” oscillating between “the Negro” and the more personal but still black “our” and “we” which subsumed King the black man: “As long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging . . . as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘for whites only’ [Applause].” Turning for a moment from the terms of future satisfaction to a blatant statement of the present black state of mind—“no, no, we are not satisfied”—King closed that with the ultimate condition, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream [Applause].” The repetition, the merging of his voice with that of the prophet Amos, and the sensuous imagery of justice rolling down like waters anticipated the Afro-Baptist run about to explode in the dream sequence.
But King was not yet ready to turn entirely to the nation, and he voiced a second aside not so much to blacks but to the specialized community of movement activists, the “veterans of creative suffering,” who made the March on Washington possible. Once again, he adopted his knowing voice, but one more distanced than in his breakout to the veterans after the Selma to Montgomery march, in order to insert a bit of mobilization talk in the midst of a speech focused on legitimation: “I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of excessive trials and tribulations. (My Lord) . . . fresh fromnarrow jail cells . . . from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution (Yes).” In a faint echo of the theology of hope that he used to respond to the classic mobilization question, he answered a version of “How long?” by urging, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”
Only after reassuring the movement cadres did King turn back to the nation. With that turn, he put aside once and for all the script vigilantly composed for the high-profile proceedings and fell into free-form preaching. Echoing his description in Stride toward Freedom of his preparation for the Holt Street meeting (“I thought of what the old black preachers said”), King explained later that “the dream just came to me.” Perhaps the turn to the “veterans of creative suffering” touched something deep within him.