A future story is one of the most powerful and challenging stories we can tell. Making sense of the complexities of the past is difficult enough, but making sense of the future is even harder. The incomplete nature of future stories brings energy and tension to the work yet to be done. Martin Luther King Jr. brought this energy, tension and much more with his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28th, 1963.
First, he clarifies the conflict; the gap between the situation today and the “promised land” of the future. The original working draft of the “I Have a Dream” speech was aptly titled, “Normalcy, Never Again.” Not all Americans perceived the conflict that he did. What many considered to be normal in 1963 American society, Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to transform. The status quo had to change, and everyone must be granted these unalienable rights.
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Second, he recognizes that truly transformative future stories like this probably seem audacious to some people and might be greeted by incredulity, derision, or even hostility. Was this guy serious? Nevertheless, he presses on, reminded listeners on both sides of the fence that “there will be neither rest nor tranquility” until full civil rights are granted. He’s not just blowing off steam, he’s in it for the long haul.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
Third, having built his case logically and methodically, MLK moves completely into empathetic story mode in the final part. He shares the ending to the future story with vivid metaphors as if it might happen soon… but not yet. It’s no coincidence that this last emotional portion of the speech, with repeated “I have a dream” references, is the most memorable and most replayed part of the speech.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
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.
*Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, on Saturday, October 8, 2011. USDA.GOV Photo by Lance Cheung.