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The Legacy of the “I Have a Dream” Speech

10 minute read
Richard Norton Smith

On Aug. 28, 1963, no one followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s oratorical tour de force more closely than the President of the United States. “He’s damned good,” murmured John F. Kennedy as King’s triumphant image faded from the television screen. Left unmentioned was King’s introduction on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as “the moral leader of the nation.”

But it must have stung so astute a student of presidential history as Kennedy. Sooner or later, fairly or not, every occupant of the Oval Office is judged by his use of the bully pulpit, invented by Theodore Roosevelt to shame purveyors of tainted meat, promote simplified spelling and trumpet the conservation of nature in opposition to a money lust recognizable to any viewer of CNBC’s American Greed. Since then, a century’s worth of richly symbolic gestures–from T.R.’s White House dinner invitation to Booker T. Washington, the first of his race to be so honored, to Barack Obama’s painfully personal testimony about racial profiling in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict–have demonstrated a President’s capacity to foster change through his moral advocacy.

Appearing briefly in the White House pressroom on July 19, Obama supplied the latest teachable moment in the nation’s 400-year seminar on race. An obvious reluctance to let the issue define his presidency only lent added weight to Obama’s comments. So did their juxtaposition against the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. To its organizers, the first great Washington protest of a transformative decade was as much about unfinished business as unkept promises. Movement veterans like A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins had vivid memories of an even earlier demonstration scheduled for July 1, 1941, and aborted at the last minute when FDR issued Executive Order 8802, which desegregated the nation’s war industries and established a Fair Employment Practices Committee to monitor workplace discrimination.

The alternative–100,000 black protesters marching to the Lincoln Memorial–held scant appeal for a President whose congressional prospects rested with Southern Democrats committed to American apartheid. Reserving his powers of persuasion for the threat posed by fascist dictators in Europe and Asia, Roosevelt tossed the hand grenade of civil rights to his outspoken wife Eleanor. When the Daughters of the American Revolution denied the celebrated contralto Marian Anderson the use of Constitution Hall on account of her race, Mrs. Roosevelt resigned her membership in the group. She gave her blessing to local activists who were seeking a highly symbolic change of venue.

April 9, 1939, dawned cold and blustery in the nation’s capital, though it didn’t prevent a crowd of 75,000 dressed in their Easter finery from assembling before the Lincoln Memorial to hear Anderson’s emotionally charged “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Among the millions listening via radio was a 10-year-old preacher’s son in Atlanta named Martin Luther King Jr. In a high school speaking competition he won several years later, King described the concert as “a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity.” The same event redefined a monument whose mixed message reflected a national habit, where race was concerned, of editing the past to avoid discomforting the present. At its formal unveiling in 1922, former President William Howard Taft described Abraham Lincoln’s Greek Doric temple as “a shrine at which all can worship.”

Yet the throng to which he addressed those words was rigidly segregated. So was the history being commemorated. Tuskegee Institute president Robert R. Moton had his remarks edited lest he offend Lincoln’s son, President Warren Harding and other dignitaries assembled to pay homage to the 16th President–for what? Architect Henry Bacon spelled it out in the memorial’s epitaph: “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” To African Americans, however, starting with Frederick Douglass, preserving the Union took second place to ending slavery. Their Lincoln was found in the second Inaugural Address justifying the war, and over 600,000 related deaths, as divine retribution for the crime of human bondage.


After 1939, the brooding man of marble supplied a backdrop to both Presidents and protesters as they prodded the conscience of white America. In June 1947, Harry Truman became the first Chief Executive to appear before the NAACP when he addressed 10,000 of the group’s members from the memorial’s steps. That Truman–a product of small-town Missouri who was known to employ the N word in private conversation–should risk splitting his party by desegregating the armed forces and sending the first civil rights message to Congress since Reconstruction lent his actions a moral majesty consistent with Lincoln’s outgrowing of the racist society that had produced him. That Truman also embraced civil rights because he couldn’t hope to win the 1948 election without black votes simply married pragmatism to principle.

Dwight Eisenhower’s hidden-hand style of leadership avoided rhetorical flourishes. (Ike once groused that if words alone defined a President’s performance, Americans should elect Ernest Hemingway to the job.) Though accompanied by the requisite Oval Office address, his 1957 deployment of Army troops to escort nine black children into a formerly segregated high school in Little Rock, Ark., spoke for itself. Three years later, Kennedy’s impromptu phone call to Coretta Scott King expressing concern over her husband’s jailing for his part in an Atlanta protest may well have supplied Kennedy’s razor-thin margin over Richard Nixon in their race for the White House. Yet civil rights went unmentioned in Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, the new President giving priority to Cold War dangers much as FDR a generation earlier had stressed the threat from overseas.

To be sure, the Kennedy Administration sent federal marshals to protect Freedom Riders who challenged segregation on interstate transport. In 1962 a plainly frustrated JFK mobilized federal troops so that James Meredith could attend the University of Mississippi. As history accelerated in the first months of 1963, the charismatic young President was betrayed by television, the latter-day bully pulpit custom-tailored to his casual eloquence and ironic wit. Pictures, not words, aroused a nation’s conscience that May. From the front pages of newspapers they spilled onto television screens by the millions: jaw-dropping images of black children in Birmingham, Ala., savaged by high-powered water hoses and police dogs answerable to commissioner of public safety Eugene “Bull” Connor.

At the White House, Kennedy said the pictures made him sick. He furtively lobbied Birmingham business executives to compromise with King and his Children’s Crusade. When Alabama Governor George Wallace attempted on June 11 to keep two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama in a confrontation staged for television, Kennedy’s detachment crumbled. That night he went on the air with an improvised speech to rally support for a civil rights bill that had yet to be written. “A great change is at hand,” the President told his audience, “and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.”

In shedding the chrysalis of political calculation, Kennedy achieved his own profile in courage. Yet even then, fearing the impact on his re-election prospects, he initially held back from endorsing the proposed March on Washington. Armed with FBI wiretaps, he worried that King’s entourage might include Communist sympathizers. Otherwise his concerns duplicated those voiced by FDR in the same office to the same organizers in the autumn of 1940. Why risk alienating potential supporters through tactics of intimidation? On the day of the march, John R. Lewis, the 23-year-old firebrand who was newly elected to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, saw his text purged of language upsetting to the white audience by march leaders, much as Robert Moton had in consecrating Lincoln’s shrine four decades earlier.

King’s speech concluding the day’s program quickly assumed legendary status. “I have a dream,” JFK said, greeting King as he arrived for a postmarch meeting in the Oval Office. The immediate political payoff was more disappointing. Senator Hubert Humphrey lamented that the march had failed to convert a single colleague to support civil rights legislation. Three months later, Kennedy’s assassination conjured memories of another martyred President, succeeded by another Southerner named Johnson, whose white-supremacist dogma had set back by a hundred years the cause of racial justice. Determined to validate his presidency born of tragedy, Lyndon Johnson would employ the bully pulpit with heroic disregard for the political consequences. “There goes the South for a generation,” Johnson reportedly observed in signing the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was a rare instance of Johnsonian understatement.

A year later, on a March Sabbath christened Bloody Sunday, 600 demonstrators demanding equal access to the voting booth assembled on the outskirts of Selma, Ala., where they were clubbed and teargassed by state troopers and local police. What followed was perhaps Johnson’s finest hour. “What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America,” he told a joint session of Congress. “It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Johnson’s words that night moved King to tears. They echo with unmistakable relevance half a century later, when the right to vote is once more being tested. In the finest tradition of the bully pulpit, they illustrate the difference between a President who preaches at us and one who undertakes to explain us to ourselves. That said, the pulpit isn’t what it used to be. Long gone are the days when a presidential address from the Oval Office automatically commanded a television audience of 70 million, countered only by the lonely voice of Eric Sevareid offering what the three television networks labeled instant analysis. Today, Obama is lucky to be seen in the cable universe, shouting into the wind of millions of self-appointed Sevareids twittering their impressions of his speech as he delivers it.

Likewise consigned to memory are the Frank Capra–esque exploits of Ronald Reagan instigating a flood of calls to Capitol Hill, enough to shake loose dozens of Southern Democrats needed to pass his economic program. The fragmentation of the modern media guarantees it. So does the disappearance of Southern Democrats. These days the loyal opposition couldn’t care less about jammed phones; they’re too busy jamming the operations of government itself. Meanwhile Obama, our putative instructor in chief, is ensnared in a political culture that defines success not as forging consensus but as preventing it. The President has been criticized for not employing his persuasive powers more forcefully. This sidesteps the question: How does a President persuade congregation members who have tuned him out, disputing his legitimacy and reserving their attention for rivals who reinforce their existing beliefs and prejudices?

That is precisely what makes the President’s remarks following the Trayvon Martin verdict so compelling. In sharing bitter memories of car doors being locked in response to his mere presence, Obama offers a postmodern version of the bully pulpit. Less theatrical than T.R.’s bluster, less elegant than JFK’s belated conversion to freedom as every American’s birthright, less urgent than LBJ’s moral imperative, Obama’s parking-lot epiphany is as chillingly authentic as it is impossible to dismiss.

Neither Kennedy nor King, this President appears less interested in directing a national conversation on race than in sparking interior dialogue, a discussion beginning not with his standing before Congress but with the rest of us figuratively staring into our mirrors.

Smith is a presidential historian and scholar-in-residence at George Mason University

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