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US Special: Remembering Martin Luther King and the Promised Land (Haddigan)

EA's US Politics correspondent Lee Haddigan writes:

Yesterday, Americans celebrated a Federal Holiday to commemorate the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the iconic civil rights leader who more than any other witnessed to white Americans the daily injustices black Americans faced in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

In Sunday's Washington Post, speechwriter Clarence B. Jones wrote how King abandoned the draft prepared for the March on Washington March of 23 August 1963. Instead he delivered impromptu remarks based on an earlier address. The gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who would sing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" at King's funeral less than five years later, called out to him, “Tell 'em about the dream, Martin, tell 'em about the dream.”

That is just what he did. And, as Jones recalls:

In that breach, something unexpected, historic, and largely unheralded happened.

What could motivate a man, standing before a crowd of hundreds of thousands, with television cameras beaming his every move, and a cluster of microphones tracing his every word, to abandon the prepared text of his speech and begin riffing on a theme that he had used previously without generating much enthusiasm from listeners?

Before our eyes, King transformed himself into the superb, third-generation Baptist preacher that he was, and he said those words that in retrospect seems destined to ring out that day:

"I have a dream."

In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones, Martin winged it. But then, no one I've ever met could improvise better.

The speech went on to depart drastically from the draft I'd delivered, and I'll be the first to tell you that America is the better for it. As I look back on my version, I realize that nearly any confident public speaker could have held the crowd's attention with it. But a different man could not have delivered "I Have a Dream."

In some ways, King has become defined by that speech. But here is a brief description of three other examples of King's eloquence.

Several months before the March on Washington, Dr. King decided to protest the treatment of blacks in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, a place he characterised as the 'worst big city' for racism in America. A protest march was planned in Birmingham, and after ignoring an injunction banning it. Dr. King was arrested and placed in solitary confinement.

While there he wrote a "Letter From Birmingham", some of it on toilet paper, in reply to a statement by eight white Alabama clergymen that the civil rights movement should be confined to legislative challenges and not fought by direct action, even if non-violent, on the streets. Dr. King argued that black Americans were tired of waiting for white counterparts to grant them the freedoms that were rightly theirs, and argued in words that show he was as powerful a writer as he was a speaker:

For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never". We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied".

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait."

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

The Birmingham protests, which shocked viewers in America with images of water hoses and dogs being used on peaceful marchers, helped get the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That Act, however, did little to stop the state-by-state discrimination against blacks voting. So, in March 1965, Dr. King went to Selma, Alabama, to publicise the city's restrictions on registering to vote. Selma had a population of 29,000, half of whom were black, but only 23 African-Americans were allowed to cast a vote in elections. Violence against protesters once again erupted, on "Bloody Sunday" when they attempted to march on the state capital in Montgomery. After national attention was drawn to the plight of black Americans in the South, another march to Montgomery was allowed to proceed. And there, on 25 March 1965, Dr. King addressed the gathered crowd in his "How Long, Not Long" speech:

Historian Stephen Oates marked Selma as the “movement's finest hour”. A few months later, the Voting Rights Act was passed, and black Americans finally achieved full legal recognition of their equality in the United States. At this point, the civil rights movement began to concentrate on gaining an economic share in the 'American Dream,' and Dr. King rapidly became a marginalised figure. Many black Americans, frustrated at their inability to break the chains of economic inequality, turned from non-violent direct action to Black Power expressions of discontent.

But there is one last chapter in the Martin Luther King, Jr. story, and it is one of the, if not the most, evocative tales that the US has to tell. In a proclamation on Friday, President Obama declared, “Dr. King guided us toward a mountaintop on which all Americans --- regardless of skin color --- could live together in mutual respect and brotherhood.” Later he stated, that brave Americans, “inspired by Dr. King's legacy...have marched fearlessly, organized relentlessly, and devoted their lives to the unending task of perfecting our Union. Their courage and dedication have carried us even closer to the promised land Dr. King envisioned, but we must recognize their achievements as milestones on the long path to true equal opportunity and equal rights.”

With his references to the "mountaintop", and the "promised land", Obama was paraphrasing King's final full speech in Memphis, Tennessee, on 3 April 1968. King went to the city to help sanitation workers in their protests against the discrimination they were experiencing at the hands of the city leaders. By this time Dr. King was exhausted, frightened for his life, and in despair at the apparently destructive path the Black Power groups were laying in America. But from somewhere he drew on his courage to deliver the "Promised Land" speech, which ends with the exhortation:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say that threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

The next day, as he stood on the balcony of his Memphis motel room, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot dead.

Dr. King was not a faultless man, and the sins of this "angel with clay feet" are documented elsewhere. But, as Vivienne Sanders notes, “his ability to inspire was peerless".

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