British journalist Gary Younge revisits Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech


Brianna Holt

British journalist Gary Younge discusses his newest book "The Speech; The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream" with Eric Tang, director of the University's Social Justice Institution, at the Joynes Reading Room on Wednesday evening. 

Nicole Stiles

When Martin Luther King Jr. first delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, it wasn’t immediately considered iconic, according to British journalist Gary Younge, who spoke about his research on the speech Wednesday.

Younge said King delivered his speech to a crowd that was passionate — but also overheated and tired. Younge said many audience members traveled all night to be at the March on Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963. 

“It was a hot day — 87 degrees by noon — and King was the 16th of 18 speakers,” Younge said. 

Younge said King had hoped civil rights could be achieved without holding a march. Activists and politicians were anxious in the days prior to the March on Washington.

“There was actually a kill switch planted inside King’s microphone,” Younge said. 

King had given similar speeches hundreds of times before — even the week before, during a march in Detroit — but the well-known “I Have a Dream” section was not in the final draft of his intended speech, Younge said. 

According to Younge, this speech in Washington, D.C., was neither the birth nor the peak of King’s popularity. After King’s speech, he began to speak on topics other than civil rights, and, by the time of his assassination, he was considered to be irrelevant in the view of the public.

“He spoke on the economy and the redistribution of wealth. … He had lost control; he [was] no longer relevant. That’s how he was viewed when he died,” Younge said.

Although the King speech was not remembered by that generation as iconic, a 1999 public opinion poll revealed that King was viewed as the second most influential historical person of the 20th century, only behind Mother Teresa, according to Younge.

Younge attributed the change in the public’s perception of the speech to the broad language King used.

“There was something for everyone in that speech,” Younge said.

Eric Tang, an assistant professor in the African and African diaspora studies department and director of the University’s Social Justice Institute, said he hopes Younge’s talk is just one of many civil-rights-themed events the University will host this year.

“This event is part of what I hope will be several campus activities that mark the 50th anniversary of a pivotal two years in the long civil rights movement — 1963 and 1964,” Tang said.

Sociology professor Ben Carrington said he hopes people don’t oversimplify the civil rights movement.

“We want students to leave knowing the civil rights movement wasn’t attributed to one man and one speech, but it was a much wider movement,” Carrington said. “It’s about changing the world.”