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Gary Younge
Great speeches: Its brilliance was in its simplicity

Like all great oratory its brilliance was in its simplicity. Like all great speeches it understood its audience. And like all great performances it owed as much to delivery as content. But it stands out because it was both timely in its message and timeless in its appeal. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" is still pertinent, even though many of its immediate demands have been met, and it is still relevant, beyond America's borders and the context that it addressed. Yet, if President John Kennedy had had his way, it would never have been delivered. And if King had been left to his own devices it might have been forgotten.

On June 22 1963, Kennedy met civil rights leaders. A month before, segregationists in Alabama had turned dogs on black teenagers. Even as the president stood on a balcony in divided Berlin demanding freedom in eastern Europe, he could not secure it for black people at home. America's racial politics had become an embarrassment. Plans for the August march were already under way. Kennedy, whose civil rights bill faced a tough ride through Congress, pleaded with the leaders to call it off, arguing "We want success in Congress. Not just a big show at the Capitol." "It may seem ill-timed," said King. "Frankly, I have never engaged in a direct action ... that did not seem ill-timed." The march went ahead. Kennedy decided that he would co-opt what he could not cancel, and declared his support.

The prospect of black protesters terrified Washington's white elite, and it is striking that the contemporary Guardian report of the march, in which King's speech was not mentioned, does refer to many police and marshals being present (see here). Although the Pentagon put 19,000 troops on standby, of the quarter of a million people who turned up, only four - all of them white - were arrested. It was a balmy day, and familiar faces in the crowd included Charlton Heston, Sammy Davis Jr and Marlon Brando. King was the final speaker and everything in his speech, from the cadence of his delivery to the lyrical repetition of its most vital refrains ("I have a dream" or "Let freedom ring"), drew on the religious traditions of black American politics that merge the pulpit with the podium. It was a basic message made beautiful by his mastery of metaphor. Words to him were like stone to a skilled sculptor, raw material which he deftly chiselled away to shape and define something of aesthetic, as well as practical, value. King had started to wind up the speech, without what has become the signature passage, when the singer Mahalia Jackson, standing nearby, encouraged him to go on. When he began to tell the crowd, "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama," she urged him, "Tell them about your dream, Martin."

King went on to draw upon a version of a speech he had made many times before. But on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the substance of the words rose to the symbolism of the occasion. In a nation apprehensive about its global status, the speech was a precision strike. Starting with Abraham Lincoln and ending with "a dream rooted in the American dream," it challenged segregation but left intact almost everything else that white America held dear. Not surprisingly, blacks and whites understood the speech differently. A poll soon afterwards showed only 3% of blacks and 74% of whites believed that "negroes [were] moving too fast". Given that the inequality which sparked the march still exists, it is not surprising differences in interpretation continue. Many white Americans saw the civil-rights legislation, passed two years later, as drawing a line under racial inequality. Not only would they resist demands to address the legacy of segregation through affirmative action, they would do so with King's own words, insisting that job candidates be "judged not on the colour of their skin but the content of their character".

But King had stated clearly that "1963 is not an end but a beginning". In an interview just before he died he explained that overcoming economic deprivation was essential to making the dream a reality. His wish that "sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood" was sincere, but not the whole story. Integration had won African-Americans the right to eat in any restaurant. Only equality could ensure that they could pay the bill. Integration was not an end in itself but the means towards that still-elusive goal. In King's words, black Americans "came to the nation's capital to cash a cheque ... that will give [them] the riches of freedom". They are still waiting for America to honour it.

ยท Gary Younge is a Guardian columnist. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Guardian on the 40th anniversary of the speech

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