One of my measures for a great writer, speaker and human is how well their words stand up to rereading over years and decades. Do you find something new every time you revisit them? Do they stand up in meaning as times change? By this measure, Martin Luther King Jr. keeps becoming greater and greater as the decades pass.
My first encounter with his words was in 1968 in my Southern segregated-in-all-but-name elementary school. And I don’t mean the Deep South. This school was in the leafy suburbs outside Washington, D.C. populated by Pentagon officials, diplomats and professionals. There were no “Colored Only” signs on the restrooms and drinking fountains, but you never saw two races using the same facilities. We had Blacks in our school — five of them — they had a separate classroom, a separate teacher and they ate at a separate table in the lunchroom. I don’t remember seeing them on the playground. They must have had a separate recess. Years later, I realized the School Board had figured out a way to meet the letter of the law of desegregation without giving an inch to the spirit of that law.
In this atmosphere, I had a teacher — not my regular teacher, but what they used to call the “Special Projects Teacher” who went from classroom to classroom presenting current events with the one precious AV set-up available in the school. He was a glamorous figure to us because he came to the education system straight from a stint in the Peace Corps. As Special Projects Teacher, he regularly combined all three third-grade classrooms and screened news footage, documentaries and other subject matter not in our regular curriculum. In between the documentaries on Papua New Guinea and the Space program, he liberally sprinkled his programs with footage of Dr. King’s full length speeches and CBS news programs on the Civil Rights Movement. It was a bold move in a school where the majority of kids came to school wearing Wallace for President buttons and stuck Wallace bumper stickers to their book bags. He probably only got away with this because the regular teachers found his sessions a great excuse to take a long smoking break in the Teacher’s Lounge. They had no idea what he was up to.
I’m not sure what my teacher hoped to do by screening those speeches (and, to be fair, he also screened Kennedy’s speeches and one film of an actor reading Abraham Lincoln’s speeches). I’m sure neither I or any of my third grade classmates understood a bit of what we heard. I do remember being impressed by the music of Dr. King’s cadences. It wasn’t until years later that I really listened to the words. I’ve been listening to them ever since and, every time I hear them, I find a new level of meaning.
Even today, I’m finding out more about Dr. King. I’d always thought his beautiful rhetoric came from the music of Gospels and the cadences of traditional Black Baptist Church preaching. Now, I find out from NPR this morning that King received a Doctorate in Philosophy from Boston University and was deeply informed on the words and thoughts of great thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke. His Letter from the Birmingham Jail, NPR pointed out, is impressive, not just for the way it weaves so many references from poetry, philosophy and the Bible, but because King, at the time, had no library and was quoting from a prodigious memory.
While news outlets are playing and replaying King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I’m going to refer you to to his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize. The former speech is a wonderful call to Civil Rights, but his acceptance speech is even more all encompassing. It lays out a roadmap of hope for humanity and an affirmation that we all can shape a better destiny for the world. (It’s also notable how many times he uses the word “audacity”. The President is not quoting Reverend Wright when he co-opts the word, he’s referring back to Dr. King.)
Are King’s words still resonating? Look no further than the collage of him made by the niece of a Flickr Friend. Her aunt explains how the picture came about:
“It is a wonderful story — after Christmas, Anna asked me what the next holiday was. I told her MLK Jr. day, She asked who MLK Jr was and we researched his life and legacy. She fell in love with him and was not prompted/coached to create the portrait. She did it all on her own. Her mom just helped her cut/paste the bio at the bottom.”
Like me back in 1968, she’s probably just responding to the music of his words. But once she’s older, she’ll have years and years to discover new meaning and new hope in Dr. King’s life, actions and speeches.
Because you probably can’t hear it too many times, here’s the I Have a Dream speech: