If we do nothing else when teaching the anniversary of the March on Washington, we must make sure our students understand both the triumphs and the struggles of the movement. So says author Gary Younge, who tackles this balancing act in his new book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream. In an interview with LFJ, Younge explains his desire “to see more of an attempt to try and introduce all students to the notion of why this [movement] was even difficult, why such a struggle was necessary.”
According to Younge, the March and speech are usually packaged as “a great patriotic moment that showed only the best of America and is part of the unrelenting progress of the nation towards its founding ideal. When the truth is that most people in America … thought the March was a bad idea.”
Other complications plagued the March: expectations of violence (there was none), attempts by President Kennedy and the FBI to stop it, and the controversy of having Bayard Rustin, an openly gay man, as chief organizer.
Even the March’s highlight, King’s speech, was tepidly received and responsible for a drop in his popularity afterward—among the movement’s supporters and beyond. While the speech “was regarded as a very good speech,” Younge says, “very few people who knew him well regarded it as his best. That would only come later.”
In fact, the “I Have a Dream” speech almost didn’t happen, at least not the way the world heard it. King’s closest advisors cautioned him against using references to the dream, which he had already used in several other speeches. Younge writes in The Speech that Wyatt Tee Walker advised King, “‘Don’t use the lines about “I have a dream,” … It’s trite, it’s cliché. You’ve used it too many times already.’”
King, too, was unsure about this speech. He stayed up until the wee hours of the morning working on it, running drafts by his aides. The uncertainty Younge describes in his book paints a picture that sharply contrasts with the way King and other historical figures are normally presented: perfectly composed men. Yet, students should know that history is not made by perfect icons on pedestals; it is made by people—like them.
If young people can understand that these heroes were flawed human beings who chose to try to make changes, they can, as Younge states, “understand that they are themselves historical figures and can make history depending on what they choose to do.” And they don’t have to wait until they grow up to do it.
Children were instrumental in the March’s—and the movement’s—success. Students spurred on the March when it had little traction. Says Younge, “At the beginning of the year, nobody really wanted a march, apart from the young people—SNCC and CORE—and it was the young people’s demonstrations in Birmingham that made this march possible. It was their sacrifice, them going to jail, them protesting, them going to Kelly Ingram Park, them having the dogs and the hoses set on them. They are the people who really focused the nation’s consciousness on this issue.”
Understanding the triumphs and struggles of the movement means expanding our definition of “hero.” Students need to see themselves in both the figureheads and the foot soldiers who made the March and the movement happen. They need to see themselves in this piece of history.
The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream is available for order through Haymarket Books. Want to share Younge's research with students? Check out this interactive multimedia experience based on the book.