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Four words

Aug 25, 2013 - Steve Peck, Publisher

In the hot summer of 1963, Martin Luther King talked about his dream

Most people living in America today were not yet born when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the greatest orations of the English language. It happened 50 years ago this week.

And, relatively few American who were alive at the time saw the speech on television. A big crowd was massed on the Washington Mall when he spoke, but really not so many when balanced against the nearly 200 million citizens of the nation at the time.

Somehow, the speech has endured.

King spoke for about 17 minutes. A five-second phrase sticks in our collective national recollection. The speech ran to about 1,100 words, but today we remember four of them clearly.

"I have a dream."

A printed copy of the speech is easy to find, or it can be read on a computer screen. It's good, but any newspaper copy editor worth his or her salt would find a lot to clean up.

Thank goodness no one did. Martin Luther King Jr's speech to the 250,000 people standing shoulder to shoulder between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial wasn't meant to be read.

It was meant to be heard.

And few speakers ever could wind up a crowd and wring it out again so well as King could.

He was just 33 years old at the time, yet nobody dismissed him as a kid. His subject matter was too serious for that, his personal toll too legitimate. He had earned the nation's attention, and he used it in ways that few men have, before or since.

In a way, the speech is its own worst enemy. Recalled a half century later by the casually informed as a sing-songy anthem of optimism, it was anything but. For more than 12 minutes, calmly, methodically, King blistered the United States for defaulting on its own foundation documents of equal rights and opportunity for all.

King urged the nation to leap forward, not tiptoe. Now was not the time "to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," he said.

"It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of its colored citizens," he continued.

At the time, some took the speech to be a call for radical upheaval -- but that already had begun, and would continue for years to come -- up to, including, and after King's assassination five years later.

What separated King's remarks from any number of fire-breathing speeches by other black American activists at the time was not the litany of criticism he uttered, but what came after it. You might say the Southern Baptist preacher warmed to his subject, telling the crowd that he dreamed of a better day for his nation.

Employing his deeply felt and superbly honed rhetorical power, the closing three minutes of the speech rise to a level of half sermon, half song.

"I have a dream today!"

Today the nation still debates that dream, but it is undeniable that the debate takes place in a different nation from the America of 1963. We did not reach that different place calmly or all that peacefully. King never lived to see it himself, his demise a bloody proof of his own motivation.

Now, five decades later, with a national holiday in his name and a shrine to him not far from the one that was the setting for his troubling yet triumphant speech, a distracted nation still knows better than to forget him.

"I have a dream."

As an epitaph, that ranks right up there.

-- Steven R. Peck

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