by Drew Hansen
New York: Ecco, 293 pp.
It has been 37 years since an assassin’s bullet tragically ended the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. A stone marker at the base of that balcony on the grounds of what is now the National Civil Rights Museum has an eerie quotation from the book of Genesis, “Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him … and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Dr. King’s “dream” led to monumental changes in American culture and we all share a debt of gratitude for his selfless prophecy and vigilance. But if he were alive today, I am certain Dr. King would remind us that his “dream” has not been fully realized. In our country today, the issues of “residential segregation, inequalities in education and poverty among Americans of all races” threaten the very fabric of our democracy.
From HarperCollins Publishing comes a timely analysis of Dr. King’s dream from Drew Hansen, a Seattle lawyer, entitled The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and The Speech That Inspired A Nation. Hansen observes, “King’s legacy to our country is the gift of prophecy: a vision of what a redeemed America might look like, and a hope that this redemption will one day come to pass. The arc of the moral universe is indeed long, but it bends toward justice. This dream can sustain us yet.”
Hansen’s helpful project is at once a rhetorical/homiletical analysis of “The Dream” Speech from the 1963 March on Washington, and a sociological and political analysis of the speech’s historical setting and importance. Hansen’s prologue provides a poignant review of the early years of the Civil Rights struggle and the triumphs of the bus boycotts, the student sit-ins and the freedom rides of 1961. A. Philip Randolph, the head of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, held a life-long dream of a march in the nation’s capital. He had threatened such a march to gain anti-discrimination legislation from Franklin Roosevelt, and his “threat” of such a march in 1963 gained access to the White House for many of the key Civil Rights leaders. That meeting did not avert the march.
Organizers offered each planned speaker five minutes at the podium at the feet of the great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. At this point in his narrative, Hansen’s trenchant analysis of Dr. King’s famous address takes us behind the scenes into the delicate details of Dr. King’s drafting of his speech. The night before the famous march, hand-written versions of the manuscript were rushed upstairs to be typed by an assistant and returned to Dr. King for proofing. Hansen provides a three-columned comparison of a “long” version, a “short” version and the actual delivered speech. He shows in great detail the biblical images used in the final version and describes King’s use of “anaphora”– a repeated word or phrase, one of the most common rhetorical/homiletical devices from the African American preaching tradition.
The reader gets a sense of the mental process followed by King. As Mahalia Jackson blasts several “old favorites” from the crudely fashioned public address system at the Mall in Washington, King prepares for his turn at the microphone, a few minutes that would lead to some of the most familiar and inspiring words ever proclaimed in this “young” country. Drawn in to the complex process of fashioning an international address, Hansen shows how King drew on previous speeches and well-rehearsed devices to create the climactic “dream” portion of the speech. Whereas other speakers and leaders had made many of the same points that King made that day, no one before him had cast such a proud vision of God’s “new heaven and new earth” for the United States of America. King’s prophecy would come to life in a rhythmic discourse of call and response.
In the tepid summer of 1963, Dr. King dusted off the gnarled pages of Amos’ prophecy and reminded us that justice still needed to flow like rushing water and righteousness like an everflowing stream. Drew Hansen’s careful analysis reminds us now in the still early days of a new millennium that people of faith still have work to do. The words of “interposition and nullification” may not be as relevant to our current context, but all of God’s children still can not sing with ample new meaning, my country ’tis of thee; sweet land of liberty; of thee I sing; land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride; from every mountain side, let freedom ring! And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
Perhaps this balmy summer, if enough of us lug a copy of The Dream on our vacation and give this great speech its due, then we can recapture in our own lives a new sense of an ancient vision of a new heaven and a new earth.
W. STEWART RAWSON is pastor of McGregor Church, Irmo, S. C.