Speakers at the August 28, 1963, March on Washington were told to limit their remarks to five minutes, but no one moved to cut off 34-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. when he talked for 16 minutes. The Baptist minister's "I Had a Dream" speech electrified the throng of more than 200,000 on the Mall, as well as the uncounted millions watching on television. The appeal of the speech, which some scholars and historians have ranked with the Gettysburg Address, is the focus of The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation.
This book will please wordsmiths, historians and students of rhetoric, as its author, Drew D. Hansen, parses virtually every sentence, with a side-by-side comparison of the speech as it was drafted, as it was written, and as it was delivered. The analysis uncovers the Biblical, historical and intellectual roots of King's phrasing, and it shows that the speech was largely a combination of favorite set pieces that had been in King's oratorical repertoire for many years. King later recalled that, in the middle of the speech, "all of a sudden this thing came to me that I have used I'd used many times before, that thing about I have a dream' and I just felt that I wanted to use it here. I don't know why. I hadn't thought about it before the speech." But the words were perfectly suited for the man, the audience and the moment.
The triumphs and trials of this apostle of nonviolence are well known, but Hansen, a former editor of the Yale Law Review who was born after the speech, reviews them for those readers who associate King primarily with the names of schools and streets and a national holiday. With such ringing lines as "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," the speech made that auspicious day on the Mall a defining moment for King's career and for the civil rights movement as a whole. Hansen captures it well. Alan Prince lectures at the University of Miami School of Communication.