Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is remembered above all for its soaring rhetoric, delivered in the flowing cadences that black Baptist preachers had transformed into an oratorical art. I heard King speak in February 1963 when he was working out his August speech. I had never heard anything like it. But I was long troubled by two paragraphs, near the beginning of the speech, whose language seems not melodious but mundane. “[W]e’ve come to our nation's capital to cash a check,” King said, “a promissory note [that] guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ [But] America has defaulted on this promissory note.” For people of color, the check bounced.
King labored over his speeches, leaving little to chance, and his language in this, his greatest speech, was no accident. His intent was to locate the civil rights movement firmly in America’s political tradition. Despite all we have endured, he said, “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
He evokes directly the language of America's two seminal documents, the Declaration of Independence and Gettysburg Address; but he grounds their philosophical rhetoric in the no-nonsense pragmatism of Poor Richard’s Almanack.
We have folded King safely into American history because we want to forget how revolutionary he was. His message was simple: Words are important, but let’s get real.
He came to redeem more than a check, and he was threatening enough to get himself killed.
* From Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again