King’s legacy remains important not only in America but wherever people are struggling for justice in non-violent civil disobedience, says Wong Soak Koon.
The 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech has just passed. Easily available on the internet, oft quoted and referred to, Dr King’s timeless words invite us to look closely at language use.
I never tire of teaching students the language effects as well as the sentiments expressed in this speech. On this anniversary of the March on Washington, perhaps we can honour Dr King, and the brave men and women who participated in this historic event, by rereading “I Have A Dream”. We may also want to look back, however briefly, at a life full of challenges and temptations as well as victories and triumphs.
We have it on good report that Dr King, as with many good orators, did not follow the script but allowed his passion and intellect to respond to the atmosphere of the moment. I would like to believe that, as he looked at the sea of marchers, he felt inspired to speak from the heart. Feelings, ably guided by the intellect, birthed language that still amazes.
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Beginning with the call of the Founding Fathers of the American republic for justice and equality, Dr King takes us back to these important words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”. In so doing, he demands that his countrymen pause and ask how much they have honoured this foundational truth and how far they have strayed from it.
For King, they have fallen tragically short as he shows in the line, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning” of this creed. That day of genuine equality has not yet come and thus the dream was (some may say, still is) pursued relentlessly by his fellow African-Americans.
Skilful use of language
Dr King’s skilful use of repetitions captures the vigour of this quest, a quest that, in the face of beatings and imprisonment, must have seemed to many as hopeless as the search for the Holy Grail. But this speech is not at all pessimistic. Quite the opposite. It rings with the power of a sure belief in the Promised Land.
Never mind that King does use metaphors of violence to image those law-makers who would use brutal means to stop the surge of change as he did of the governor of Alabama whose lips, King tells us, “are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.” The tone of this speech resonates with hope and with self-control as King refrains from hectoring or vilifying his opponents. On many other occasions, King has said that hate cannot be driven out by hate; only love can raise the human spirit from the mire and darkness of racism.
King’s deep love for America is expansively conveyed in his panoramic sweep of the landscape of this huge continent. Let freedom ring, he repeats, from ‘the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire”, from “the mighty mountains of New York”, from “the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania” to the “snowcapped Rockies of Colorado”. As a preacher, well schooled in Biblical imagery, King knew well the resonances that mountains and high ground carry as terrain where revelations from the divine occur. Will Man rise up and live out the divine creed that all men are equal before God?
Unifying the speech with landscape imagery, Dr King effectively balances desolate and fertile scenes which are immediately accessible to our mind’s eye. He paints Mississippi, “sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression” as a “desert state” that will surely be “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
I can imagine his voice ringing out clear across the miles of marchers to convince them, through another skilfully chosen contrast, that together “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”. Such adroit handling of contrasts and balancing of images reveals a mind sharpened by long hours of reflection in an otherwise action-packed life.
As we read the line, “Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ taken from an old Negro Spiritual, we hear the voices of slaves, hands scratched and torn as they labour in the noon-day heat of cotton fields, ringing out across generations. These voices, translated later into blues and other musical genres, are alive to this day, sounding out the continued quest for freedom. They call forth the image of a day when “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands” in jubilant celebration of equality and peace.
In the final years of his life, before he was assassinated, Dr King expanded his concerns with justice and freedom to include the Vietnam War. Expressing his doubts about this long-protracted military engagement in a piece titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, he linked the war to massive military spending which would create even more economic inequality and with the desire of rapacious capitalists to invest in Asia. Some may argue that what Dr King says of the United States, that it is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, has not altered much, if at all.
Poverty across racial lines also occupied his thoughts. Many of his civil rights supporters may have worried about this seeming dilution of the specific African American cause in a broadening of issues that would include anti-Vietnam War protests and a wider concern for poverty. It seems to me no surprise though that a man, so deeply concerned with injustice, should expand the perimeters of his struggle in this manner. Where power breeds so much oppression, only systemic change can bring people to the Promised Land.
Men, such as Dr Martin Luther King, will always incur the wrath of the incumbent government. The FBI investigated him for possible Communist ties and, as in many such covert strategies, also had his extramarital liaisons on record. For me, such evidence of personal failings in no way diminishes Dr King’s achievements. Rather, it is the FBI’s covert policing of those who challenge the power of the state that must give us all, as citizens, pause as we ponder the surveillance under which we may all be living.
In an amazingly prescient speech, just before his assassination, Dr King gives us this uncanny sense of impending danger:
“And I have looked over. And I have 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. We have got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I have been to the Mountain … Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I am not concerned with that now. I just want to do God’s will”.
Dr King’s legacy remains important not only in America but wherever people are struggling for justice in non-violent civil disobedience. His call to reconciliation and forgiveness rings true now as it did before when he tells us to choose Love because “Hate is too heavy a burden to bear”.
Dr Wong Soak Koon is an Aliran member based in the Klang Valley.