Rhetorical Fluke or Providential: “I Have a Dream!”

Written by Gary North via The Tea Party Economist

Today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous  speech, known as “I Have a Dream.” It deserves careful consideration, because it  is widely regarded as the most important speech by a private citizen in American  history.

The general public does not understand why that speech worked. The general  public knows almost nothing about the content of the speech. The average person  has never gone to YouTube and listened to it even once, let alone several times.  I have listened to it very carefully. I regard it as a rhetorical  masterpiece.

Let me rephrase that. I regard the final third of the speech as a rhetorical  masterpiece. There is a reason for this. It was ad libbed. It is the most famous  ad libbed speech in American history.


There are several accounts of how the speech was written. I am using the  account written by Clarence B Jones, King’s associate, who was a lawyer. He is  the author of a 2011 book on the speech: Behind the Dream: The Making of the  Speech That Transformed a Nation.  Jones and King had worked together  on speech-crafting before. One of the themes which King had used before had been  recommended by Jones. This was the idea of a promissory note. It was a  promissory note supposedly issued by Abraham Lincoln by the Emancipation  Proclamation. The theme of the speech was this: the United States government in  1963 had not delivered on that 1863 note. In other words, with respect to  Lincoln’s promissory note, it was a bad check. It had bounced repeatedly.

This was historically silly. Lincoln had issued no such note. But King  appealed back to Jefferson’s “All men are created equal.” He invoked that as a  promissory note. The fact that the Declaration of Independence never had any  legal standing was beside the point. King was writing a speech, not an  historical treatise. The Declaration was highly rhetorical. So was King’s  speech.

He did not use the language of a bounced check, even though more of his  listeners that day would have understood the reference. He spoke of a promissory  note. This was the language of a lawyer. That is because it was written by a  lawyer. Jones prides himself in being part of that process, although he does not  claim that he was exclusively responsible for the final version. But there is no  doubt that he was the source of that metaphor.

This metaphor was judicially clever. But it was not moving. People do not  dedicate their lives to a cause on the basis of running a promissory note  through the bank again, hoping that the account will have sufficient funds this  time.

The first two-thirds of the speech was essentially a lawyer’s brief. It was  delivered by a minister, a man who had made his reputation by being an eloquent  minister speaking on civil and political issues. Why did he think that a  lawyer’s brief would work in front of the largest gathering that had ever  assembled in Washington D.C., and one of the most emotionally moving  demonstrations in history? There were 250,000 people there. The largest assembly  before that was about 47,000, the Bonus Army of 1932, in the Great Depression.  It was a  fifth the size. Also, the army under Douglas McArthur had run the Bonus Army  out of town, and burned down their tents.

Oddly enough, there was a perfectly good biblical justification for this  lawyer’s brief. In terms of the message of the Old Testament prophets, a  lawyer’s brief was appropriate. The lawyers of the Old Testament were the  prophets, and they had delivered a series of covenant lawsuits against the  nation of Israel and the nation of Judah. Their targets were primarily the  leaders, but they also included the whole society. These were legal briefs. So,  there was a legitimate tradition behind the use of such language. But it is not  common language in ecclesiastical circles. Nevertheless, we do not remember this  speech as the promissory note speech. Yet that was the metaphorical heart of the  original speech.

Everyone knew King was the headliner. That was why they had him speak last.  This was to be the culmination of the march. This was to be the high point of  the march. This was to leave a legacy. It did leave a legacy, but it was not the  legacy of Jones and King who, the night before, had put the speech into its  final form.


Jones describes what happened next. This should be in every textbook account  of the speech. Yet it is not well known, although it has received some attention  this year.

Because on the Lincoln Memorial steps, Martin, who had made his way into  roughly the seventh paragraph of the speech I’d handed in, paused after saying,  “We cannot turn back.” This alone was nothing unusual. The hesitations and  breaks were all part of his oratory process, the rhythms he had mastered at the  pulpit. Yet in this split second of silence, something historic and unexpected  happened. Into that breach, Mahalia Jackson shouted to him from the speakers and  organizers stand. She called out, “Tell ‘em about the ‘Dream,’ Martin, tell ‘em  about the `Dream!’” Not many people heard her.But I did.

And so did Martin. (pp. 111-12)

(For the rest of my article, click the link.) Continue Reading on www.garynorth.com

Read more at http://teapartyeconomist.com/2013/08/28/rhetorical-fluke-providential-dream/#rhVRUb0EHYzOTzqm.99

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2 Responses to Rhetorical Fluke or Providential: “I Have a Dream!”

  1. Gunny G says:

    Reblogged this on DICK.GAINES: AMERICAN! ~ LONE BLOGGER ! and commented:
    Dick G


  2. Pingback: Today’s Toons 7/4/14… | BLOGGING BAD w/Gunny G ~ "WE CLINGERS"

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