Fifty one years ago this month, on August 28, 1963 to be exact, the world was gifted what has come to be universally acknowledged as perhaps the most riveting, most transformational, most inspirational speeches in recorded history. Atop the steps of the symbolic Lincoln Memorial, before a mass of over 250,000 civil rights activists, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his epochal "I Have a Dream" rendition, calling for an end to racism in the United States.
Ranked the top American speech of the 20th century in a 1999 poll of scholars of public address, it was the highlight of the historic March on Washington, and instantly became a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement.
According to US Representative John Lewis, who also spoke that day as president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, "Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognised. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations."
King deftly combines historical fact, religious nuance, personal experience and a touch of intoxicating passion, spontaneity, innovation and oratory prowess to deliver what is widely hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric, whose seismic waves still reverberate through the sands of time. King's speech invokes the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the United States Constitution.
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In reference to the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed millions of slaves in 1863, King says "it came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity", but then hastily observes that "one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free". The ideas in the speech reflect King's social experiences of the mistreatment of blacks. He describes the promises made by America as a "promissory note" on which America has defaulted, saying that "America has given the Negro people a bad cheque", but that "we've come to cash this cheque" by marching in Washington, DC.
But it is the smart use of of the speech art of "Anaphora", the repetition of a phrase at the beginning of sentences that creates the most striking impression. He employs it throughout the speech. The most widely cited example of anaphora is the often quoted phrase "I have a dream..." which is repeated eight times as King paints a picture of an integrated and unified America for his audience.
Toward the end of the speech, King departed from his prepared text for a partly improvised peroration on the theme "I have a dream".
This was prompted by celebrated African American gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, who shouted to King from the crowd, "Tell them about the dream, Martin." King stopped delivering his prepared speech and started "preaching", punctuating his points with "I have a dream." In this part of the speech, which most excited the listeners and has now become its most famous, King described his dreams of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred.
"I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream — one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.' I have a dream..." Among the most quoted lines of the speech include "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!" Jon Meacham writes that "With a single phrase, Martin Luther King Jr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who've shaped modern America".
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And help shape modern America King surely did. While the world's leading democracy continues to face challenges, including the racial divide, epochal breakthroughs like the Obama presidency are a living manifestation of the "King Dream".
I challenge us all to imagine every possible way of inspiring our nation to dream the Kenyan dream, again. And then live it! We ruined the plot soon after independence through sheer myopia and raw selfishness. We lost a glorious opportunity with the wasted "Yote Yawezekana" NARC moment. Even our long sought and much celebrated new constitutional dispensation today stands at a crossroads.
Early in his speech, King urged his audience to seize the moment: "Now is the time..." Amidst the challenge of tribal jingoism that continues to pull our nation asunder like claws of the malevolent; amidst the toxic politics that corrode the national fabric like a hazardous substance, let us seize the moment and unleash the Kenyan dream.