Monday, December 22, 2008

Eric J. Sundquist's "King’s Dream"

Eric J. Sundquist is UCLA Foundation Professor of Literature, UCLA. He is author or editor of eight books on American literature and culture, including the award-winning volumes To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature and Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, King’s Dream, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book King’s Dream addresses a question central to any evaluation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. When he departed from his prepared text and spoke the words for which he is best remembered, what was the source of his famous words? My page 99 consists mostly of the following paragraph:

At the same time, Carey was careful to specify the limits of his demands. His answer to the question “What does the Negro-American want?” rejected any form of favoritism. All blacks want, he argued, is “the right to live and work and play, to vote and get an education and be promoted, to fight for our country and hope to be President, like everyone else. More than that we do not ask, but with less than that we shall never be content.” Still, it would be a mistake to assume that Carey’s espousal of colorblind equal opportunity was a partisan position. On this point and others his speech and King’s had much in common. Few listening in 1963 to King’s famous wish that one day his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” not to mention those listening to Carey in 1952, would have openly advocated racial favoritism. King’s answer to the question “When will you be satisfied?” was more militant than Carey’s answer to the question “What does the Negro want?” So, too, his warning to those who “hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content” was somewhat more threatening than Carey’s assertion that the Negro “shall never be content” with less than equal rights as citizens. The differences in tone help to explain why King sounded radical to many, but they must also be measured against the fact that King, no less than Carey, made the Declaration of Independence his principal touchstone, while Carey, just as emphatically as King, underscored the unredeemed promissory note held by black Americans.

Here I am addressing a speech given by Archibald J. Carey, Jr., a black Chicago pastor and alderman, at the 1952 Republican National Convention, from which King borrowed virtually the whole of his own speech’s conclusion, from “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” through the incantation “Let freedom ring.” Beyond the other points of comparison that may be noted between the two speeches, King’s borrowing of the “Let freedom ring” cadenza, which followed upon his reiterated declaration of “I have a dream,” as I go on to argue, is just one of many occasions on which African Americans used lyrics from the popular song “America” to state their demands for freedom and equality.

In making Carey’s words resonate in more powerful ways, King also harked back to the Liberty Bell itself, which had been frequently invoked by antislavery activists a century earlier. And he harked back to James Weldon Johnson’s turn-of-the-century Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which asks that heaven and earth “ring with the harmonies of liberty.” And he alluded to the contemporary song “If I had Hammer,” made popular in 1962 by Peter, Paul, and Mary, which speaks of the “the bell of freedom” being heard “all over this land.” When King rang the bell of freedom and portrayed the nation as a set of interconnected mountain ranges from the “heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania” to Stone Mountain of Georgia, he likewise made an argument of constitutional significance. He demanded national African American rights by rejecting the segregationist doctrine of states’ rights.

Without the magnificent concluding lines of his speech, borrowed from Carey but refashioned in King’s own terms, his speech would not have been as powerful and as widely remembered as it is today.
Read an excerpt from King’s Dream, and learn more about the book at the Yale University Press website.

Learn more about Eric J. Sundquist's research and scholarship at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue