Recalling King's dream

Our greatest speech

Forty Years ago on a sweltering August day in Washington, the Baptist preacher and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the defining speech of his generation and the most famous oration of the 20th century. Writing in The New York Times the next day, James Reston promptly recognized King's achievement and predicted, "It will be a long time before [Washington] forgets the melodious and melancholy voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. crying out his dreams to the multitude."

That voice has now become an American institution. And as familiarity with the speech fades to annual invocations of the "Dream, fading with it is the civic memory of King's uncompromising critique of the injustice that made the dream necessary.

Critics like Malcolm X unfairly characterized King's performance as a feel-good exercise designed for white consumption. After all, it was only a dream with on policy demands attached. But there was nothing soft or accommodating about the speech. The greater part of it was devoted to the Negro's experience of pain, broken promises, and now rising rage in a country about which Langston Hughes once wrote, "O yes/I say it plain,/America never was America to me."

Enjoy 1 free Sentinel article or audio program each month, including content from 1898 to today.

January 19, 2004

We'd love to hear from you!

Easily submit your testimonies, articles, and poems online.