Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Omaha.com
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At some point today, you almost certainly will hear the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Perhaps in a recording of that singular baritone voice with its striking cadence. Or on a page imprinted with his electrifying commentary. Or from schoolchildren who will quote the late preacher, scholar, activist and leader in essays to be read aloud in downtown Omaha.
Maybe King’s voice will ring in your memory as you relive that famous speech, now 50 years old, about a dream. His speeches are among the most memorable in U.S. history.
Regardless of the form his words take, it will be nearly impossible, on this third Monday in January, not to hear King.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“The time is always right to do what is right.”
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
King’s artful prose at times sounds like poetry. His is the powerful rhetoric of an ardent activist crafting a stirring vision filled with biblical imagery, allusions to great thinkers and an urgent, compelling argument.
The very language of King sparked controversy last year when the sculptor of the new memorial to him in Washington, D.C., chose — in order to create a spare aesthetic — to paraphrase a portion of a sermon.
Critics, including poet and author Maya Angelou, said King’s words were taken so out of context as to render a meaning opposite to what King had intended in the full quote. Visitors to the memorial were of mixed opinion as to whether the inscription — “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness” — captured King’s essence or misrepresented a man who had given a more nuanced description of the words “drum major.”
In the original sermon, delivered two months before his death in 1968, King used “drum major” to symbolize the ego’s need to be out front, to be recognized.
He said this is harmful when the “drum major instinct” leads people to feel superior to others. But he said it can be used for good when stepping in front to lead. He ends the sermon with a bit of a self eulogy.
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
King’s body of written work includes six books and hundreds if not thousands of sermons and speeches. Many of them were delivered extemporaneously and later transcribed.
The King Library and Archives in Atlanta, the largest storehouse of Martin Luther King Jr. material, is home to some 1 million documents — about a third of them pertaining to King.
The author of a book on what is probably King’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” said he spent a week at the Atlanta archives and photocopied “every sermon that looked remotely interesting.”
“It was probably 1,500 to 2,000 pages of transcripts,” said Drew Hansen, who is now a lawyer in Seattle and a Washington state legislator. “That’s totally an underestimation. Many, many thousands of pages of sermons.”
Hansen’s book, published 10 years ago, is titled “The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation.” He said he was drawn to research the “Dream” speech because he wondered why it was so memorable, particularly in light of other great speeches from that era.
“The more I looked at that speech,” he said, “the more I realized what a remarkable achievement that was in the year when schools in the South are almost completely segregated, the Jim Crow system is very much alive. King is able to envision an America where racism is no more.”
Language-wise, Hansen said, the “Dream” speech is unique compared with anything politicians were saying about Civil Rights in that era.
“You will not find anything remotely resembling” how poetic it is, he said.
King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — 10 pages, single spaced — is not as well-known as the “Dream” speech but is excerpted in many school textbooks. King wrote it after his arrest for civil rights work in Birmingham, Ala.
In the letter, King cites thinkers from Socrates to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and he compares the resistance of freedom fighters to early Christians who faced the lions and Boston Tea Partiers who faced the British.
In one long sentence, he uses parallel structure and strong language to emphasize why it’s unjust to simply wait for progress to evolve:
“But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim … when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has been advertised on television … and see ominous clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
But as pointed or graceful as his language was, King was not just about the talk.
He literally was about the walk as he carried out his words in marches throughout the South.
This is an important thing to remember, said Nikitah Imani, a sociologist and political scientist who heads the Black Studies Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“If he were alive on King Day,” Imani said, “he’d be leading a march somewhere or organizing or doing something.”
Imani and others say the American perception of King often tends to stop at the “Dream” speech in 1963. King’s civil rights work in that year preceded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, but he also grew increasingly vocal about fighting poverty and about opposing the Vietnam War.
The FBI already was investigating King, and his anti-war and anti-poverty positions lost him some support. King paid the ultimate price for continuing to talk — and to push for social change — when he was fatally shot while standing on his hotel balcony in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.
The power of his language is indisputable.
After King’s death, the “Dream” speech was excavated and so widely quoted and replayed over the years that it became part of the American consciousness, Hansen said.
In 1983, Congress — with a veto-proof majority in both houses — established King’s birthday as a federal holiday, to be marked on the third Monday in January.
King’s words today are used in classrooms, invoked in sermons and, in the case of a poetry reading last week, pronounced in downtown Omaha.
They are inscribed in a memorial to him in north Omaha, just west of 24th and Lake Streets. They appear in a display in the Aframerican Bookstore on 32nd and Lake Streets.
But words without action don’t pay homage to King or his message, say people such as the bookstore owner, Marshall Taylor.
Taylor said King’s message today should inspire people to change their lives or work to change society.
“The poor are still getting poorer,” he said. “The divide is still getting larger. … We have to get beyond the dreaming and the language and do something about these conditions.”
Central High School history teacher Rod Mullen starts with his classroom. He incorporates many of King’s speeches, especially lesser-known ones, to reflect his own evolution and his sense of urgency.
And King tried to convey that, too, in drawing out the opposite of language: silence.
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people,” King wrote in the Birmingham letter, “but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, email@example.com
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