“I have a dream …”
Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. told the world what his dreams were in words that still resonate with people today. His lines are repeated by people who never heard King speak, who weren't alive in 1963.
The civil rights movement was revving up in the early 1960s. A quarter of a million people marched on Washington that August day in 1963. Some expected the worst, including bloodshed. But King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave his impassioned talk about his dream of living in a country free from racism.
There is a dramatic shift halfway through the speech, points out Dr. Samantha Senda-Cook, an assistant professor in the Communications Studies Department at Creighton University, who often uses King's words as a classroom tool.
The first part is King's planned speech, given in what she calls “manuscript delivery” — rather dry, trying to make his point, sticking to the script, sounding a bit nervous.
But when he comes to the end of the prepared speech, he looks up and begins speaking extemporaneously. He goes into the “I have a dream” section, where he speaks with more confidence, more gestures and more volume, Senda-Cook said. “He engages with the audience.”
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'
If he had stopped after the planned speech, it might not be remembered today, Senda-Cook said.
But his off-the-cuff rhetoric became a masterful one, combining all the elements speechwriters today strive to achieve.
Do they consciously think of creating words that will resonate, that may be remembered in years to come?
“Absolutely,” said Terri Moore, chief of staff for Nebraska's Sen. Mike Johanns, who has written many speeches in the 10 years she has worked with the senator.
Good speechwriters have two main objectives, she said. The first is good mechanics or structure, which includes cadence, phraseology, crispness, common language. “No ten-dollar words, as the senator says.”
The other is the inspirational side — moving the audience. “That's not achieved by negativity. Don't just complain. Tell how to make it better,” Moore said.
The “I Have a Dream” speech was given at a heated time. “Martin Luther King certainly had plenty to be angry about,” Moore said.
He could have spewed angry rhetoric that day, she said, “but we wouldn't remember it.”
Another ingredient that makes words last is truth, she said. People want honesty.
Senda-Cook thinks one thing that contributes to a memorable quote is historical context — what's happening at the time the words are spoken.
Also important is eloquence, she said.
“Eloquence doesn't mean big words,” Senda-Cook said. “It's the ability to frame big ideas into words people understand.”
King's speech spoke to the America of 1963. “It defined an issue,” she said. “Its premise is accepted now,” but those were different times. Still, the concerns of that time haven't gone away, which may be one reason his words still resonate with people 50 years later.
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.
Another speech she thinks had similar results is Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
“It had great impact,” she said. “It was short, eloquent.”
In their book, “Words of a Century: The Top 100 American Speeches, 1900-1999,” Stephen Lucas and Martin Medhurst list King's “I Have a Dream” speech as No. 1. The top 100 were chosen on the basis of artistry and impact after the authors surveyed 137 communication scholars.
Of course, some speeches aren't remembered, but quotes from them have lived on. Not many people can tell you what all President Kennedy talked about in his inaugural address in 1961, but Americans of all ages can recite, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Revolutionary War times gave us the memorable “give me liberty or give me death” from Patrick Henry; the pre-war tumult of the '30s prompted “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” from Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lincoln told us that “government of the people, by the people, from the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Even people who don't know a lot about King's “I Have a Dream” speech probably can recite its ending, a line from an old spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!