On Monday, January 20, Americans from Washington, D.C. to Washington state will recite some of the most memorable refrains from Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "Dream" speech, delivered when the civil rights leader was just 34 years old.
What most Americans do not realize, however, is that King's speech was based on a teenage dream -- one first envisioned and articulated when he was just a 15 year old in the Jim Crow South.
Despite extensive scholarly study of King's life and writings, Wake Forest University student William Murphy recently became the first to identify the striking parallels between King's legendary 1963 "Dream" speech and an address he delivered in 1944 as a high school student in Georgia. Even as an adolescent, King was a visionary who already knew what was right. In "The Negro and the Constitution," his speech that won the Georgia Black Elks oratorical contest, he revealed the principles that ultimately inspired the most significant and moving American speech of the 20th century.
These two speeches share a powerful and prophetic bond. Though "I Have a Dream" is a more polished text, the timeless ideals, themes and images celebrated in 1963 -- including brotherly love, non-violence and freedom from racial hatred -- were first presented in Dublin, Georgia, in 1944. He defined the bedrock of the civil rights struggle: the success of the movement required that the enemy be hatred, not southerners. In 1944, he described scenes of black and white children playing together in harmony, anticipating his 1963 refrain. He also planted the seed for his famous "bad check" metaphor, contrasting the promises of the Emancipation Proclamation with the oppressive reality of race relations at the time.
The common fabric of the speeches is a subtle narrative thread -- the history of Marian Anderson, one of the greatest contraltos of her time, whose story and songs animate both speeches beyond mere words. Anderson was barred from performing at Constitution Hall in 1939 by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) because of the color of her skin. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reacted to this injustice, resigned from the DAR, and found Anderson a new venue, the Washington Mall -- the site of King's triumph nearly a quarter century later.
King was only ten at the time of the DAR snub, but he took notice. In his Black Elks address, he described the important politicians who attended Anderson's performance and how fitting it was that she sang before the Lincoln Memorial. In 1939, a speaker who talked of an America without racial prejudice introduced Anderson, who then approached the microphone and sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" in the same drawn out phrasing that King would repeat in 1963 in the symbolic shadow of Lincoln. King also recited two lines of the song as he moved from the recounting of his "dream" to the "mountain" portion of his speech. And like Anderson, who closed her performance by singing Negro spirituals, King fashioned his 1963 closing to echo Anderson's theme: "...sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.'"
King's 1944 oratory called for a more just America, but it did not erase ugly realities. On the bus trip for the contest, King traveled with fellow student and a teacher. The bus driver ordered the three companions to surrender their seats to a white couple who had just boarded the bus. When the driver did not believe they were moving fast enough, he began cursing at them. Though the two teenagers were determined to remain in their seats, their teacher persuaded them to move. King would later describe that moment as, "the angriest I have ever been," and it served as one more reminder of the injustice he sought to overcome. So, it is fitting that while both speeches inventory the nation's shortcomings, they also embody an uplifting message of hope.
King did not live to see his dream become reality. Yet, as we learn more about the remarkable schoolboy whose foresight shaped the most famous American speech of our time and dedicate this memorial to the man who made those words immortal, we are reminded that King's life and work still have more to teach us about building a just society.