Dr. King had a vision of cooperation

"I have a dream. ..."

By Jeff Clarke on January 15, 2015

In the movie Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, the rebels try to use the young heroine Katniss as a pivot point to rally others to their cause.  They put Katniss in front of cameras and give her scripted lines to read through.  She's worthless at that kind of acting.  The commercials crash and burn - they're lifeless and hopeless.

Woody Harrelson's character laughs, and steps into the studio. Katniss can inspire people, he tells them, but only when she speaks from the heart.  The rebels take Katniss into battle, catch her in an emotional moment, and all is right with the world again.  You can't "script" soul.  Nobody ever joined a mission after they watched a Spice Girls dance number.

Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech to 250,000 civil rights supporters.  For most of it, he read from a script.  He was getting exactly nowhere, until a woman seated behind him hissed in his ear.  

"Tell them about the dream, Martin!"

King looked down behind his shoulder toward her, as it were. He paused subtly.  In front of one-quarter of a million people, he threw his script out and decided to tell the world what he really thought.  

From there to the end of his speech, he needed only 615 words.  Those 615 words changed the face of America:

... And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

... I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

His 1963 audience froze.  The "shock and awe" filled the air.  Dr. King, warming to his task, fed off the people. He powered across his "I have a dream!" line again and again.  As he ran a type of live video reel in front of their minds, the people went into a trance.  Dr. King's speech took on more and more life.

He roared, "I have a dream today!" that little white girls would be able to join hands with little black girls.  That every valley would be exalted, and every crooked path made straight.  That the glory of the Lord should be revealed and all flesh would see it together.  That we would hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

When America went home that night, it had bought in to the idea of brotherly love.

Fifty years later, "civil rights" are too often about the things that whites can take from blacks, or vice versa.  When the post-King arguments turn negative, they rotate around the issue of what one race owes the other race.  

But Dr. King put forth a positive vision of cooperation.  He didn't get sour in the conflict, which is why his words still sound so sweet.  He saw a world in which both sides "win."  

His goal was not victory for blacks over whites, but victory for all.  He fought for the well-being of all Americans.  The vision is compelling, and scholars often vote his speech as the #1 American speech of the 20th century.  

Fifty years on, Dr. King's hopeful vision for America continues to inspire us.