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Globalization

'Tell 'em about the dream, Martin!'

Fifty years later, Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a dream" speech resonates far beyond America's borders. Journalist and King biographer Gary Younge tells DW how the speech came to be - and remains unfulfilled.

DW: In his speech, Martin Luther King Jr. explicitly said that his dream was linked intimately to the American dream. How did it speak to a black kid coming of age in Margaret Thatcher's Britain during the 1980s?

Gary Younge: It locates you - located me - in a narrative. And this narrative was one in which, there was racism, but also, there was hope. And there were people who were fighting against racism.

What was it about this particular speech that affected you?

The utopian nature. King stands in the middle of this horror show, which is American racism in the '60s - people being killed, people who were his friends being murdered, regular attempts on his life, children being jailed, him being jailed, his wife being threatened. He stands in the middle of that and dreams of a world where racism doesn't exist.

It's an optimistic speech about race. You don't get many of them.

Set the scene for us - tell us about the march on Washington, what was at stake, and how King fit into that.

Gary Younge

Younge was inspired by King as a child growing up in Britain

Everybody tries to talk them out of this march. [President John F.] Kennedy tries to talk them out of it. Even some of the progressive congressmen try to talk him out of it. They say, "Look, anything can happen. This could go badly wrong. And if it does go badly wrong, the legislation that Kennedy's suggesting could be damaged. We're on a knife edge and this is too much of a risk."

The famous "I have a dream" sequence nearly didn't end up in the speech at all. What happened?

King comes to the podium as a 10th speaker, and there is a kind of exhaustion and an excitement in the crowd. What we know is that when King reaches his podium, the "I have a dream" segment is not in the speech text. The night before, one of his main aids, Wyatt Tee Walker, says to him, "Don't do the 'I have a dream' thing. It's trite. It's cliché. We want something better." King is aiming for something with the power of Gettysburg, Lincoln's famous speech.

So he does the speech, and it's going fine - but only fine. Now, Mahalia Jackson was King's favorite gospel singer. She'd heard him give the "I have a dream" refrain in Detroit three months earlier. And Mahalia Jackson, who's sitting behind him, shouts, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin! Tell 'em about the dream!" Now, we don't know if he heard her. But we do know that Clarence Jones [King's adviser and friend] was standing 20 feet from both of them. He heard her, and he said King must have heard her.

King sets the text to his left on the podium. His body language shifts from a lecturer to a preacher. Clarence Jones turns to the person next to him and says, "Those people don't know it, but they're about to go to church." In that moment, King starts with his "I have a dream" refrain.

An obvious question to ask would be: Where is King's dream now in Obama's America? But I understand it's a question you've become slightly frustrated with.

To the extent that people ask, "Is Obama the culmination of King's dream?" I have never seen King dream about individuals. His argument was always for the collective uplift of a group of people, meaning black people, towards equality. We would be crazy to suggest that nothing has changed, that there have been no improvements, that America hasn't made progress.

And yet to posit Obama as evidence of equality belies the fact that he has risen in American politics at the very time when the gap between black and white has grown. Obama comes to the fore in 2007/2008 during the economic crisis, which hammers African-Americans in a far, far greater way than it does white Americans. And the economic disparities, the income disparities, the wealth disparities have all grown under Barack Obama.

Now, one could argue about whether that's causal or coincidental. But you can't argue about the fact of it. The black male life expectancy in Washington DC is lower than the Gaza Strip. Infant mortality in Chicago for blacks is around the same as in the West Bank. You look at those figures and you can't seriously suggest that in the age of Obama, we have reached what King called the "beloved community," or that we're anywhere near realizing his dream.

What would be a better question for the world to be asking on the 50th anniversary of King's "I have a dream" speech?

Maybe: What still needs to be done to achieve this vision? What is left to do, and how do we do it?

Gary Younge is a columnist for The Guardian and The Nation and the author of a new book called "The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King's Dream.

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