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BOOK REVIEW

Exploring origins of 'King's Dream'

An author examines Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 speech. An author examines Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 speech. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / January 17, 2009
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On Aug. 28, 1963, some 250,000 people gathered for the March on Washington, which Martin Luther King Jr. called "the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation." It was a seasonably warm day, and there was an overfilled program of civil rights leaders, clergy, entertainers, and folk singers.

Toward the end of the afternoon came King, already hailed as the soul of the civil rights movement, and a year later to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. King had a fine speech in hand, a masterpiece of oratory that called on themes from the Old Testament prophets to Abraham Lincoln. But just a paragraph from his prepared ending, King stopped in midsentence and paused.

As Eric J. Sundquist speculates in "King's Dream," it was as if King realized that something was missing, that, despite the continued shouts of approval, "he had not yet truly connected with his audience." When King resumed, it was to utter, spontaneously, the memorable words: "I have a dream. . ."

What Sundquist, a professor at UCLA, has done in this revealing, densely argued book is to explicate King's words, place them in the context of the civil rights movement, and explore later interpretations of a key part of the speech.

As for that powerful "dream" imagery itself, Sundquist writes, "Dreams of freedom were omnipresent" for civil rights activists. King himself had used it earlier that summer at a Walk for Freedom in Detroit, and it could be found in the music of the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison, in the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil rights pioneer who had died just the day before.

Most significant in the speech as a whole, Sundquist suggests, were the "substantial quotations" from the Old Testament books of Daniel, Isaiah, and Amos. However obscure they might be to a secular audience, King's intentions were "unambiguous," for "in each instance the scripture's religious message bears directly on the political argument" that King was making. In allying himself with those prophets, Sundquist writes, King "joined a biblical tradition of prophetic dissent that meant not to undermine the authority of the nation but righteously to restore it."

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address stands with the "Dream" speech in its emotional power. Another connection with Lincoln is made in Sundquist's discussion of King's use of "America" - "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" - which leads up to his ringing "Free at last!" conclusion. Lincoln, he tells us, had several times visited an encampment of former slaves in Washington. On one visit, after the opening prayer, Lincoln "stood up and sang 'America.' "

In the book's concluding chapter, "Not by the Color of Their Skin," Sundquist explores the political interpretation of a key passage: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." "Those thirty-five spontaneous words," Sundquist writes, have been crucial in "[framing] public discussion of affirmative action over the past four decades." They have been used as such by Ronald Reagan, by supporters of California's Proposition 209, which barred "preferential treatment," and, perhaps most remarkably, by Clarence Thomas, before his appointment to the US Supreme Court, in arguing for an "equality of rights."

Wondering where King would stand today, Sundquist suggests that "his aspiration to color-blindness [would] not contradict his commitment to compensatory treatment." But in the end, "in King's moral universe . . . character always trumps color."

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.

KING'S DREAM By Eric J. Sundquist

Yale University, 295 pp.,

illustrated, $26

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