Seven years after the Montgomery bus boycott made Martin Luther King Jr. a major civil rights figure, Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, claimed at a meeting that justice had been done in Alabama through legal action, rather than nonviolent protest.
"In fact, Martin," Wilkins charged, "if you have desegregated anything by your efforts, kindly enlighten me."
"Well," King replied, "I guess about the only thing I've desegregated so far is a few human hearts."
Wilkins nodded, and within months the NAACP was committed to joining King in the march on Washington that would become the most vaunted protest in American history. Drew Hansen has brilliantly reconstructed that hot summer day in 1963 when 250,000 activists peaceably assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial to demand jobs and freedom, and heard about - who would have believed it? - a dream.
In a single stroke, observes Hansen with characteristic insight, "[King] added something completely fresh to the way that Americans thought about race and civil rights. He gave the nation a vision of what it could look like if all things were made new."
There was no mention of dreams in King's prepared oration, written to fit the five-minute time limit to which all speakers that day had agreed. Instead, he focused on the Constitution as a "promissory note" and the march as an effort "to cash this check - a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice." As a metaphor, it was smart, yet, as Hansen notes, no different in substance "from what could be found in the speeches of President Kennedy ... or any other politician of the era who supported civil rights."
Only standing on the podium, the last of 10 speakers, could King see his way to the vision still with us today. "Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive," he read from the page in front of him, and then he lifted his eyes and began to preach. He spoke as he did at his own Ebenezer Baptist Church. He adapted and improvised, as attuned to his audience as a virtuoso jazz musician.
He had given voice to his dream before. "I have a dream tonight," he told a crowd in Rocky Mount, N.C., in late 1962. And, two months before the March on Washington, he had again dreamed aloud, this time that "right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job."
In seminary, King had not only absorbed the glorious cadences of the King James Bible, but also had learned to make sermons in the time-honored tradition, shaping memorized set pieces to the occasion. King's speech in Washington recreated what he had said before, and to his colleagues much of it was by then familiar. His vision may not have been of the moment, yet his insight - that he might enlighten the millions of white Americans watching him on TV by sharing his dream - was the overwhelming inspiration of that day.
"When he left his prepared text, he no longer sounded like President Kennedy," writes Hansen. "He sounded like Isaiah." Not a politician, but a prophet.
And the dream did reverberate. When he saw King at a White House reception that evening, Kennedy himself grinned and repeated, "I have a dream." Yet that acknowledgment was not made public, for fear that association with the black preacher accused by segregationists of being a communist would imperil Kennedy's pending civil rights legislation. King was considered too controversial a figure, and became more so as he condemned the war in Vietnam and decried poverty at home. Talk of dreams darkened to murmuring of nightmares.
Then he was shot.
Silenced, he was resurrected a universal martyr to collective torment and guilt. The dream, which had been mentioned but once in the 64,000 pages of civil rights debate in the Congressional Record, came to stand not only for King but for civil rights generally. Hansen astutely observes that "remembering King through the 'I Have a Dream' speech allowed the nation to tell itself a comforting but inaccurate story about King's legacy."
Inconvenient sources of continuing controversy over such issues as welfare reform could be conveniently overlooked. The dream was evoked in South Africa and in Tiananmen Square, and, by the '80s, King's admonition that people not be judged "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" had even been twisted into a slogan against affirmative action. More than desegregating a few hearts, the dream came to mean all things to all people, and Martin Luther King Jr. had become a name suitable for apartment complexes and high schools.
The bowdlerization of opinions once held by a man the FBI considered "the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation" is of course a disgrace. Yet King's speech can be appreciated as an eirenicon - a thing of peace - which even today brings disparate people together more than the civil rights leader could ever have dreamed.
• Jonathon Keats serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.