It would be easy to assume that the stirring words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech affected Americans most of all. His goading of a nation to live up to the democratic principles of its founders was a sharp display of America’s private grief. The wrongs he set out to right were internal and shaming — American sins that stretched back to the days of slavery. When he rose to speak, King was clearly aiming his remarks at his fellow Americans.
But King’s dignified appeal to the better nature of his countrymen had a resonance far wider than just the United States. When he addressed what he called “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” he would inadvertently set off a worldwide movement for racial emancipation. Tangible evidence of the long march he set off on 50 years ago can be found in the endless roads and civic facilities around the world to which the name Martin Luther King has been appended — celebrating the American civil rights leader’s universal cry for a more generous and humane world.
Africans found a particularly poignant message in King’s plea for racial tolerance and his declaration that “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” It is no surprise that there is a Martin Luther King Road in Lusaka, Zambia, and a Martin Luther King Street in Mpumalanga, South Africa. King’s appeal to the goodness in Americans and the struggle for black liberation in South Africa led by Nelson Mandela were made of the same cloth.
King’s insistence on non-violence stemmed from his devotion to the ideas of pacifist civil disobedience preached by Mahatma Gandhi as a means to throw off British rule in India. The link between the two strands of dignified, peaceful, powerful dissent can be found celebrated all over India, as in the naming of Martin Luther King Sarani, or Street, in the fancy Park Street area of Calcutta.
Harder to fathom, perhaps, is the plethora of Martin Luther King public monuments in France, places like Parc Martin Luther King in the tony Parisian neighborhood of Batignolles, once the home of the Impressionist painter Édouard Manet, and the Collège Martin Luther King in Villiers-le-Bel.
King could not have imagined how readily his name would be commandeered by liberal white politicians to boast the impeccability of their progressive credentials. How else to explain the Martin Luther King Adventure Playground in Islington, North London?
The power of King’s message 50 years ago can be seen in the way the BBC in London is celebrating what most Americans think of as a purely domestic event. The British national broadcaster has distilled the essence of King’s lasting appeal with a broadcast that has recruited dissident world leaders, peacemakers and protesters to each read aloud a part of King’s speech a more earnest iteration of the “We are the World” format previously used by pop musicians to raise money for disaster relief. It will be heard by the BBC’s audience of 239 million worldwide.
Among those chosen to speak King’s hallowed words are the Dalai Lama, exiled from Tibet by the Communist Chinese occupation; Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to go to school; Maya Angelou, the American poet, and Joan Baez, the precentor of the American civil rights movement. In the absence of the great Mandela himself, his granddaughter, Ndileka Mandela, will speak.
Gwyneth Williams, head of the network that orchestrated this program, put the speech in its global context when she said, “Martin Luther King’s words constitute one of the most passionate political statements of the 20th century, a source of inspiration in the quest for freedom in so many different countries around the world.”
So what was it about the speech and the time it was delivered that ensured that “I Have a Dream” went instantly into the worldwide pantheon alongside President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself,” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Never Surrender,” and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address?
Spoken in tones of hushed deliberation, in barely 1,600 words, King dared the racists to diminish the meaning and importance of his message. He pitched his appeal for tolerance and fairness by stressing the historical dimensions of the eternal grievances of African-Americans left unrectified by the Civil War.
By stressing that “1963 is not an end but a beginning,” however, he understood that equally important to the meaning of the words he chose was the age in which they were spoken.
The exact date of the speech, Aug. 28, 1963, is important. The early ‘60s was an optimistic time when anything seemed possible. It was the tail end of an Age of Innocence for America, but also the blossoming of the Age of Aquarius. The ‘60s social revolution had started, but not yet turned sour. The United States had not yet caught Beatlemania. On the pop charts, “Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh!” by the comedy writer Allan Sherman, rubbed shoulders with Peter Paul and Mary’s more ominous “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The young president, John F. Kennedy, still had two months to live.
Television was never more powerful. Suddenly the real life of news broadcasts from Selma, Alabama, seemed more immediate and exciting than the artificial dramas of the endless soaps and game shows. The United States was going through a growth spurt and was just about to shed its ‘50s naïveté for the complexities of the high ‘60s — with its Summer of Love, its Generation Gap and its overindulgences and overdoses.
Thanks to new TV satellites like Telstar, fired into space the previous year, the full drama of the King speech was seen and felt around the world in real time. The United States, once isolated by two oceans and its deliberate decision to remain free from the troubles of the Old World, was opening up. As John Lennon recalled of the British invasion in the spring of 1964, “We were all on this ship in the ‘60s, our generation, a ship going to discover the New World. And the Beatles were in the crow’s nest.”
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, whose pinnacle was King’s speech, was part of a new strand of political protest, the mass demonstration, which was soon picked up and used to great effect in student revolts worldwide. For those watching from afar, King’s noble words represented the best side of a troubled country about to be wracked by assassination, rioting and war.
The clear sense of foreboding in his speech was resolved less than five years later — when he was shot dead. With John Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, he took his place as one of a trio of martyrs whose deaths testified that the dream he longed for would not easily become reality.
Nicholas Wapshott is a Reuters columnist.