Some people are asking today: what should I be reading? Others are advising: please use the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag to recommend resources and books. With that in mind: please read The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King’s Dream by Gary Younge. It is the best book about politics that I have read. It takes a subject that many of us know a little bit about but explains it in an accessible and rigorous way. Through it we come to understand a little more about the events of the last week.
Younge tells us how King’s 1963 speech came about, what its significance was at the time, and what it means now. He describes the backdrop to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He sets out the arrangements for the policing of it that show us how little we’ve progressed in nearly 60 years. He discusses the detailed preparation for the speech itself, the nature of its delivery and the extent to which King improvised on the day, drawing on the crowd’s responses. And he explains how King had become a marginalised figure by the time of his death five years later, the speech largely forgotten. Only after his death did the speech get recalled.
What has happened since, Younge explains, is that the speech has been co-opted by people who actively stand against what King was fighting for. Younge writes:
The ability of America’s powerful to co-opt and rebrand resistance to past inequities as evidence of the nation’s essential and unique genius is as impressive as it is cynical. Such sleight-of-hand is often exercised at the same time that attempts to correct the inequalities that made such resistance necessary in the first place are ignored or marginalised.
In an excellent chapter on the legacy of the speech and also of King’s career, Younge discusses how we should now view the speech. He is scathing about the facile nature of some of the debate (‘Has King’s dream been realised’ or does Obama’s election fulfil the dream) but does try to address what he outlines as the failures of the former president. Younge ends with a peroration himself which is inspiring and challenging and precisely what we need right now.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Please read it.