A couple of weekends ago in The Observer, there was an article, 50 documentaries you need to see, introduced by Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC’s Storyville. The following night the Storyville slot on BBC Four featured an outstanding documentary concerned with history, guilt and justice directed by David Evans in which human rights lawyer Philippe Sands – whose family, all but one, were Jews murdered by Nazis at Lviv – accompanied the sons of two prominent Nazi leaders on a journey across Europe and into the darkness of the past shared by all three men. Continue reading “My Nazi Legacy: official justice and moral judgement”
With Holocaust Memorial Day imminent (details at the end of this post), Goran Rosenberg’s deeply moving memoir, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, compels us to think about why it is important to maintain the memory of the Holocaust – and to contemplate its meaning today. Continue reading “‘My story isn’t about Auschwitz, it’s about life after Auschwitz’: Goran Rosenberg”
Something happened on the day he died
– David Bowie, ‘Blackstar’
Three things we learned this past week connect in my mind. First came the news that Bowie had died, followed by a huge national outpouring of sorrow and loss. A day later it was revealed that the number of people attending Church of England services each week has dropped below 1 million – less than 2% of the population – for the first time, with Sunday attendances even lower at 760,000. Finally, amidst widespread condemnation, leaders of the Anglican communion meeting in Canterbury agree – in the words of Giles Fraser – ‘to punish its American franchise for the temerity of marrying gay people, sending out the message to the LGBT community: you are a problem, and we will establish our unity on the basis of your exclusion’.
The meaning of these stories, it seems to me, is that they reveal how British society has changed in the decades since Bowie first stunned viewers tuning in to watch Top of the Pops on 6 July 1972 to see him in the persona of Ziggy Stardust performing ‘Starman’, arm draped around Mick Ronson’s shoulders, pointing a finger at us all and singing, ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you-hoo-oo’. Continue reading “Something happened on the day he died”
Ai Weiwei’s work is not unusual in drawing upon the artist’s own life experience for inspiration, but there is none of the solipsism of Tracey Emin’s Bed in his art. Ai Weiwei’s installations, sculptures and videos – which I saw last week in his powerful, moving and deeply serious exhibition currently at the Royal Academy – affirm his unwavering commitment to human rights and freedom of expression.
Everything is art. Everything is politics.
Last week, at Budapest’s Keleti station, the Observer’s Emma Graham-Harrison mingled with the refugees hunkered down on the concourse there. In today’s paper she retells eight of the stories she heard from those fleeing persecution and war. This is one of them. Continue reading “From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story”
‘Iron tree’ by Ai Weiwei outside the chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
At Yorkshire Sculpture Park they recently completed the renovation of a sandstone chapel built in 1744 for the owners of Bretton Hall, the Palladian mansion that stands at the heart of the estate now devoted to art. The chapel was a place of worship for the owners of the estate and the local community for over 200 years until it was deconsecrated in the 1970s. Enter it now and you enter a contemplative space occupied by a new installation by Ai Weiwei, a profound and meditative work by an artist whose government has strictly limited his travel and confiscated his passport.
Fairytale – 1001 Chairs consists of 45 antique Chinese chairs dating from the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), each one different and yet arranged so uniformly in nine orderly rows in the nave, each chair occupying an identical, rigorously-defined space so that they seem to lose their individuality. And this is exactly Ai Weiwei’s point.
Unable to travel to Yorkshire, and working from plans and photographs of the chapel, Ai selected 45 chairs from a project displayed in Kassel in 2007 for which he brought (metaphorically) 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel for 20 days, representing each person (otherwise unable to travel outside China) with an antique chair. Ai Weiwei chose 1001 to make a point about the collective and the individual: 1000 is a mass, one is an individual.
Ai Weiwei, ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)
In the chapel you are invited to choose a chair and sit. You are handed poems to read by Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing (1910-1996). For this is art that is both deeply political and more meditative than any other work by Ai that I have seen. The tranquil space, with its plain stone floor and bare whitewashed walls invokes stillness. As sunlight slants through the unembellished windowpanes, Ai’s Fairytale Chairs and his father’s words combine to provoke thoughts about power, privilege and the freedom of individual. The chapel is a refuge, a sanctuary in which thought can take wing.
The individual: detail from ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)
Each of these chairs is a valuable antique which once would have seated a privileged member of Chinese society, and now might be bought at a great price and leave China to stand in the room of a wealthy individual on the far side of the world. To be invited to sit on a chair like this is a freedom not granted to our Chinese contemporaries. These chairs were once the preserve of the privileged, but now – through Ai Weiwei’s intervention – as the crowds of visitors to the YSP sift through the chapel and sit for a moment’s contemplation, they represent democracy.
Society allows artists to explore what we don’t know in ways that are distinct from the approaches of science, religion and philosophy. As a result, art bears a unique responsibility in the search for truth.
Ai Weiwei’s work repeatedly draws attention to unethical government policies. He gained international attention for his collaborative work on the design of Beijing’s National Stadium,nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, built for the 2008 Olympics (he later said that he was ‘proud of the architecture, but hated the way it was used’). His work has often been angry and controversial, including the series of photographs in which he gave the finger to the Chinese government and other international leaders, and breathtaking installation in Munich created from 9,000 children’s backpacks which was his protest over the thousands of students killed when their schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (he blamed the death toll on the Chinese government corruption that permitted shoddy construction).
For nearly a decade, Ai has been harassed, placed under constant surveillance, and sometimes imprisoned. In 2011, state police seized him, threw a black bag over his head and drove him to an undisclosed location, where he languished for 81 days in a tiny prison cell. He is now banned from leaving China and his home remains under constant surveillance. Despite these restrictions, Ai has continued his criticism of the Chinese Communist leadership – which he regards as repressive, immoral and illegitimate – in works that demonstrate a deepening concern with autocratic power and the absence of human rjghts. Were it not for his international celebrity and the worldwide protests last time he was jailed, Ai would probably be in prison like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence.
Ai’s political activism and confrontational art stem from a tumultuous childhood. In the chapel I sit for a while and read poems by his father, Ai Qing, one of China’s most revered poets, who was imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party in 1932. It was during the three years he spent in jail that Ai Qing began to write poetry. During the Sino-Japanese war (1931-45), swept along by the rising storm of patriotism in China, Ai Qing travelled to Yan’an, in northern China, the centre of the Communist-controlled area. He officially joined the Party in 1941, and was once close to Mao Tse-tung, who talked to him on several occasions about literary policy. His poems from this time reveal an empathy with China’s poor and their harsh existence. One of the poems I had been given to read was ‘The North’, written in 1938 in Tongguan; this is the last stanza:
I love this wretched country,
This age-old country,
That has nourished what I have loved:
The world’s most long-suffering
And most venerable people
Ai Qing’s poems celebrated the natural world and the lives of ordinary people – and the Communist cause, as here in these lines from ‘The Announcement of the Dawn’, another poem available to read in the chapel:
For my sake,
And please tell them
That what they wait for is coming.
Tell them I have come, treading the dew,
Guided by the light of the last star.
I come out of the east,
From the sea of billowing waves.
I shall bring light to the world,
Carry warmth to humankind.
Poet, through the lips of a good man,
Please bring them the message.
Tell those whose eyes smart with longing,
Those distant cities and villages steeped in sorrow.
Let them welcome me,
The harbinger of day, messenger of light.
Open every window to welcome me,
Open all the gates to welcome me.
Please blow every whistle in welcome,
Sound every trumpet in welcome.
Let street-cleaners sweep the streets clean,
Let trucks come to remove the garbage,
Let the workers walk on the streets with big strides,
Let the trams pass the squares in splendid procession.
Let the villages wake up in the damp mist,
And open their gates to welcome me …
Ai Qing joined the Communist Party in 1941, and for a time was close to Mao Tse-tung, with whom he would sometimes discuss literary policy. When Ai Qing returned to Beijing in 1949 he was already a cadre in the new government, and began to concentrate his talents more and more on writing poems in praise of Mao Tse-tung and Stalin. Then, in 1958, he wrote a poem that extolled the virtues of a culture that celebrated rather than repressed multiple voices. For this he was publicly denounced as ‘a rightist’ and exiled with his family to a re-education camp, where he was humiliated, beaten and forced to clean toilets for nearly two decades. Ai Weiwei was one year old and spent his early years in the camp, then another 16 years in exile before the family was allowed to return to Beijing in 1976 following the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution. In an interview with David Sheff in 2013, Ai Weiwei recalled the years of exile:
I’m a person who likes to make an argument rather than just give emotion or expression a form and shape in art. I became an artist only because I was oppressed by society. I was born into a very political society. When I was a child, my father told me, as a joke, “You can be a politician.” I was 10 years old. I didn’t understand it, because I already knew that politicians were the enemy, the ones who crushed him. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But now I understand. I can be political. I can say something even though we grew up without true education, memorizing Chairman Mao’s slogans. I memorized hundreds of them. I can still sing his songs, recite his poetry. Every morning at school we stood in front of his image, memorizing one of his sentences telling what we should do today to make ourselves a better person.
Another poem by Ai Qing that I read as a sit in the stillness and light of the chapel at the YSP is ‘Wall’, written on a visit to Germany in 1979. These are the opening and closing stanzas:
A wall is like a knife
It slices a city in half
One half is on the east
The other half is on the west
How tall is this wall?
How thick is it?
How long is it?
Even if it were taller, thicker and longer
It couldn’t be as tall, as thick and as long
As China’s Great Wall
It is only a vestige of history
A nation’s wound
Nobody likes this wall
And how could it block out
A billion people
Whose thoughts are freer than the wind?
Whose will is more entrenched than the earth?
Whose wishes are more infinite than time?
Ai Weiwei has selected three more works for the chapel. ‘Ruyi’ (which means ‘as as one wishes’ is a vividly-coloured porcelain sculpture in the form of a traditional Chinese sceptre of the same name, used by nobles, monks and scholars for around 2,000 years. Ruyi denoted authority and granted individuals the right to speak and be heard, ‘thus enabling orderly and democratic discourse’.
Ai Weiwei, ‘Map of China’, 2008 (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)
Map of China is a massive piece, carved from wood reclaimed from dismantled Qing dynasty temples. On the wall opposite are displayed two timelines. One consists of some of the terrible dates in China’s history in the last 100 years: the estimated famine deaths across China (five million in 1928-30; 10 million in 1943; 25-45 million after the end of the Great Leap Forward in 1961); troops opening fire on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1989; the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands in 2008. In a parallel column are listed dates very personal to the artist: 1932, his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, begins to write because he cannot paint while imprisoned as a member of the League of Left Wing Artists; 1958, Ai Qing interned in a labour camp as a “rightist” with his family, including the baby Ai Weiwei, where he spends the next 16 years cleaning the village toilets.
Then there are recent dates from the artist’s own life: 2008, artistic adviser for the Olympic stadium; 2009, project to publish all the unacknowledged names of child victims of the earthquake, and cranial surgery following assault by police; 2010, house arrest as ‘Sunflower Seeds’ opens at Tate Modern; 2011, accused of ‘economic crimes’ and imprisoned for 81 days, his Shanghai studio demolished. The most recent date simply reads: ‘2014, passport confiscated’.
Ai Weiwei, Lantern, 2014 (Photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)
Upstairs is ‘Lantern’, carved in marble excavated from the same quarries used by emperors to build the Forbidden City, and more recently, to build Mao’s tomb. For some years the Chinese authorities have surrounded Ai’s home with surveillance cameras and every step he takes outside is recorded and monitored. In a gesture of mockery and defiance, Ai began to decorate the CCTV cameras with red Chinese lanterns. Then he began to carve the ‘Lantern’ series from marble. In this way the ephemeral becomes permanent, or – as Ai has said – ‘The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.’
Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013
One tree, another tree,
Each standing alone and erect.
The wind and air
Tell their distance apart.
But beneath the cover of earth
Their roots reach out
And at depths that cannot be seen
The roots of the trees intertwine.
– Ai Qing, ‘Tree’,1940
Stepping out of the chapel into the sunlight you are confronted by one of Ai’s most recent works – the six-metre high ‘Iron Tree’, the largest and most complex sculpture to date in a tree series begun in 2009, and inspired by pieces of wood sold by street vendors.
Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013, details
The work has been constructed from casts of branches, roots and trunks from different trees. Although like a living tree in form, the sculpture is very obviously pieced and joined together with large iron bolts. ‘Iron Tree’ comprises 97 pieces cast in iron from parts of trees, and interlocked using a classic – and here exaggerated – Chinese method of joining, with prominent nuts and screws. The work ‘expresses Ai’s interest in fragments and the importance of the individual, without which the whole would not exist’.
Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential. Simply put, aside from using one’s own imagination – perhaps more importantly – creativity is the power to act. Only through our actions can our expectations for change turn into reality.
– Ai Weiwei
It’s 25 years since a million protesters demanding democratic freedoms gathered in Tiananmen Square, only for the protests to be brutally crushed. Good piece in the Guardian by author of Beijing Coma, Ma Jian who took part in the protests and is now exiled.
- Ai Wei Wei: the unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
- Ai Weiwei: throwing stones at autocracy
- Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seeds at Tate Modern
- Ai Weiwei: ‘I have to speak for people who are afraid’
‘Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’
– Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail
‘That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance: perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain that dream we dreamed in agony.’
– James Baldwin
I’ve been reading Guardian writer Gary Younge’s new book The Speech: The Story behind Martin Luther King’s Dream, published to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 28 August 1963. It was a book I had to read, because the summer of 1963 radicalised me and defined my politics for the rest of my life.
In that regard, I was brought up short by Younge’s observation early on in his book that in its immediate aftermath, it was not obvious that the speech would have any significant political impact. While it served its purpose on the day, inspiring those who heard it, the speech did not figure prominently in the media reports of the event. Younge quotes Drew Hansen who also wrote a book about the speech, The Dream, as stating:
At the time of King’s death in April 1968, his speech at the March on Washington had nearly vanished from public view. There was no reason to believe that King’s speech would one day come to be seen as a defining moment for his career and for the civil rights movement as a whole… King’s speech at the march is almost never mentioned during the monumental debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which occupy around 64,000 pages of the Congressional record.
That gave me pause for thought: when, actually, did I first read, or hear, King utter the ‘I have a dream’ passage that, in my memory, I associate with that summer when, 15 years old, I was inspired by the civil rights movement, and followed news of terrible events such as the brutal suppression of the children’s march in Birmingham, Alabama, the murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing?
1963 was one of the few years in which I ever kept a diary, and in it I find that I have recorded each of these events, as well as the March on Washington itself. Interestingly, though, on 29 August, although I note the news of the march and Martin Luther King’s presence, there is no mention of his speech, let alone ‘I have a dream’. Of more interest to me at the time is the fact that Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary performed, and that the trio had sung Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.
So when did I first read or here King’s words? There is no way of knowing this now. In the Guardian archive, I discovered that newspaper’s two reports of the event on the following day. The front page story made no mention of speeches, let alone ‘I have a dream’, and no mention of Martin Luther King. Oddly, the report does not record the presence of any named black leader – only that ‘among the first to arrive was George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi movement’. Another report on page 9 by the same journalist does record that ‘the leaders of the main organisations which have sponsored the march delivered brief addresses’, but mentions no names and does not record any of their words. Newspaper of record? Quite astonishing, really.
All this reveals how unreliable memory can be, and how, in the case of an event as ‘historic’ as King’s ‘dream’ speech, its historic nature may not have been immediately apparent. It no doubt inspired those who were present that day, but at what point were his words widely disseminated?
In his book, Gary Younge sets out to explore the appeal of King’s speech, and the different ways in which it has been interpreted from the afternoon on which he made it. Drawing on his own interviews with civil rights leaders and activsts including Clarence Jones, who wrote the first draft of the speech, Younge reveals how the speech was written, and how as he delivered the speech King departed from the written text to extemporise its most memorable segment. This short book does an excellent job of setting both the march and the speech in the context of what Younge identifies as a ‘pivotal moment’ when the movement to end segregation evolved into the demand for black equality.
The crucial backdrop to the March on Washington and King’s speech was the way in which segregation in the South, for so long accepted as the norm, was being openly challenged and brutally defended in 1963. Again, I remember how as a teenager at the time, as well as being enthralled by the bravery of civil rights activists, being astonished and appalled by the actions and statements of men like ‘Bull’ Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham who turned the jet hoses on the children, and George Wallace, Governor of Alabama (who said, ‘I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’).
As positions hardened, writes Younge, ‘key players who had learned to live with segregation – the federal government, business interests, liberal whites, conservative blacks – were forced to reckon with the arrival of a new order.’ In few places were these developments clearer than in Birmingham , Alabama. In one of the most racist cities in the South, segregation – in schools, libraries, hotels, lunch counters, water fountains and toilets – was strictly enforced and violent attacks on the homes of black activists were commonplace. In May, Martin Luther King had joined protesters sitting in at lunch counters across the city. He had been arrested and jailed, placed in solitary confinement where he wrote his crucial Letter from Birmingham Jail on toilet paper.
With so many adult protesters in jail, and funds for bail nearing exhaustion, the movement turned to children to keep the protests alive. On the first day, just under 1000 were jailed, most of them children. On the second day the city powers turned hoses ‘powerful enough to rip the bark off a tree from thirty yards’ on the kids. The images of the brutality went around the world. I remember my own shock on seeing them as a 15 year old.
As the protests continued, King and his associated agreed a controversial deal with the city authorities to bring about desegregation of lunch counters. It was a deal that inflamed the racists, and the following evening a bomb ripped through the motel where King had been staying (he had already left). Rioting followed in the town and martial law was imposed. This only highlighted growing divisions within black politics, with the deeply-held principle of non-violence adhered to by King and the civil rights movement challenged by those who argued that they were for violence if, in the words of Malcolm X, ‘non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem just to avoid violence’. The issue was moving beyond desegregation to the broader question of white supremacy and how to challenge white people’s hold on the power structure.
On 11 June, soon after President Kennedy had made a televised national address announcing legislation to end segregation, Medgar Evers, field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, was shot in the back with a bullet fired from a behind a bush as he stepped from his car outside his home. Hearing the news, Bob Dylan immediately set to writing the awkwardly challenging lyric that he would later sing at the Lincoln Memorial: ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’.
In his book, Gary Younge places the ‘Dream’ speech in the context both of the events that heightened tensions before the March on Washington, and what unfolded in the years immediately following:
King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech occurred at a pivotal moment. He was the most visible face of a demand – ending legal segregation – that seemed at the time not only plausible but inevitable. As long as the movement focused on that specific goal, all the protests, arrests, and even deaths that occurred along the way had a clear purpose; his speech, and the march at which it was delivered, reflected a general sense of optimism that things would change for the better. However, once that struggle had been won the question of equality remained unanswered, leaving the coalition splintered and its aims either diluted or redirected to goals evidently much harder to attain and more difficult to define.’ None of these developments happened immediately or evolved evenly. Far from it. King’s star continued to ascend for a short time even as the fortunes of those he sought to lead waned. At the end of 1963 Time magazine named him Person of the Year; the following year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile, on the ground, the movement continued to advance. The Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 registered swaths of new Black voters in the most racially hostile state of the Union. A year after that would be the Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama, demanding voting rights and Johnson’s commencement speech at the historically Black college Howard, in favour of affirmative action. Nonetheless, as the decade wore on, the mood of African Americans was increasingly infected with cynicism, despair, and even despondency. At a meeting in Chicago in 1966, King was evidently shaken after being booed by young Black men in the crowd. He later recalled:
I went home that night with an ugly feeling; selfishly I thought of my sufferings and sacrifices over the last twelve years. Why should they boo one so close to them? But as I lay awake thinking, I finally came to myself and I could not for the life of me have less than patience and understanding for those young people. For twelve years, I and others like me have held out radiant promises of progress, I had preached to them about my dream. . . . They were now hostile because they were watching the dream they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.
On the evening after the march, Malcolm X said to Bayard Rustin: ‘You know, this dream of King is going to be a nightmare before it’s over.’ The nightmare began on Sunday 15 September when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. The bombers had waited for the church’s annual Youth Sunday, and the explosion tore out the church basement, where children practiced their parts for the ceremony. Four girls were killed: three 14-year olds and one 11-year old. The bombers had chosen their target for its charged symbolism. The church had been a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963: it was where the students who were arrested during the 1963 Birmingham campaign’s Children’s Crusade were trained; and it was where civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr, Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth had inspired activists with speeches and sermons.
Gary Younge sees the consequence of these events in these terms:
At a rapid clip, the centre of gravity of Black politics migrated from the South to the North, from rural to urban, middle age to youth, God to Mao, and from integrated, interracial non-violent struggle to race-based, black nationalist militancy that accepted violence as a possible strategy.
Reading Gary Younge’s book, images of the March came into my mind, some of them, I realised, from Richard Powers’ fine novel The Time of Our Singing, about a family defined by racism. This is the passage that I was remembering:
They gather at the base of the Washington Monument. People pour in from wherever there is still hope of a coming country. They rumble up from the fields of Georgia on broken-down grain trucks. They ride down in one hundred busses an hour, streaming through the Baltimore tunnel. They drive over in long silver cars from the Middle Atlantic suburbs. They converge on two dozen chartered trains from Pittsburgh and Detroit. They fly in from Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas. An eighty-two- year-old man bicycles from Ohio; another, half his age, from South Dakota. One man takes a week to roller-skate the eight hundred miles from Chicago, sporting a bright sash reading FREEDOM.
By mid-morning, the crowd tops a quarter of a million: students, small businessmen, preachers, doctors, barbers, sales clerks, UAW members, management trainees, New York intellectuals, Kansas farmers, Gulf shrimpers. A ‘celebrity plane’ airlifts in a load of movie stars – Harry Belafonte, James Garner, Diahann Carroll, Marlon Brando. Longtime Freedom Riders, veterans of Birmingham, Montgomery, and Albany, join forces with timid first-timers, souls who want another nation but didn’t know, until today, how to make it. They come pushing baby strollers and wheelchairs, waving flags and banners. They come straight from board meetings and fresh out of prison. They come for a quarter million reasons. They come for a single thing.
The march route runs from Washington’s needle to Lincoln’s steps But as always, the course will the long way around. Somewhere down Constitution are jobs; somewhere down Independence is freedom. Even that winding route is the work of fragile compromise. Six separate groups suspend differences, joining their needs, if only for this last high-water mark.
The night before, the president signs orders to mobilize the army in case of riot. By early morning, the waves of people overflow any dam the undermanned crowd-control officers can erect. The march launches itself, unled, and its leaders must be wedged into the unstoppable stream after the fact, by a band of marshals. There’s agitation, picketing, a twenty-four-hour vigil outside the Justice Department. But not a single drop of blood falls for all the violence of four hundred years.
Television cameras in the crow’s nest of the Washington obelisk pan across a half a mile of people spilling down both sides of the reflecting pool. In that half mile, every imaginable hue: anger, hope, pain, new-found power, and, above all, impatience.
Music breaks out across the Mall ~ ramshackle high school marching bands, church choirs, family gospel groups, pickup combos scatting stoic euphoria, a funeral jubilation the size of the Eastern Seaboard. Song echoes from staggered amplifiers across the open spaces, bouncing off civic buildings. A bastard mix of performers work the staging area – Odetta and Baez, Josh White and Dylan, the Freedom Singers of SNCC and Albany fame. But the surge of music that carries the marchers toward the Emancipator is all self-made. Pitched words eddy and mount: We shall overcome. We shall not be moved. Strangers who’ve never laid eyes on one another until this minute launch into tight harmonies without a cue. The one thing’ we did right was the day we began to fight. The song spins out its own rising counterpoints. The only chain we can stand is the chain of hand in hand. All past collapses into now. Woke up this morning with my mind on freedom. Hallelujah.
David Strom hears the swelling chorus in a dream. The sound bends him back upon his past self, the day that first took him here, the day that made this one. That prior day is here completed, brought forward to this moment, the one it was already signalling a quarter century before. Time is not a trace that moves through a collection of moments. Time is a moment that collects all moving traces.
David Strom, an exiled German Jewish mathematician, is remembering another moment of resisting racism. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the black contralto Marian Anderson to sing at the main concert venue in Washington DC because of the colour of her skin. The subsequent news reports created a storm of protest and prompted first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to withdraw from her membership of the organization and to organise an open-air concert on Easter Sunday 1939, when, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson sang before a crowd of more than 75,000 people and to a radio audience in the millions. In the crowd was a young Martin Luther King. In the crowd, too, Powers’s characters David Strom and Delia Daley, a talented African American singer, meet. They later marry – an illegal act in half the states of the union in 1939 – and have three musically talented children. They make a brave but finally doomed attempt to bring up their three children ‘beyond race’. Each attempts to come to terms with their mixed-race heritage in different ways; the daughter, Ruth, grows up to reject her parents’ vision and joins the Black Panthers.
On 28 August 1963, Marian Anderson again stood at the Lincoln Memorial, opening the afternoon’s proceedings by singing ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’.
The central chapter of Gary Younge’s book is devoted to a close analysis of each section of King’s speech. He takes us through the process by which the speech was written and continually refined in the 24 hours before its delivery. Younge tells how, for King’s entourage, this speech had to be different. He notes that although by 1963 King was a national figure, few outside the black church and the civil rights movement had heard him give a full address. Now, with all three television networks offering live coverage of the march for jobs and freedom, this would be his introduction to the nation.
King’s greatness as a speaker, said James Baldwin, lay in his ‘intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt or baffle them’. Clarence Jones was his speech writer:
When it came to my speech drafts [King] often acted like an interior designer. I would deliver four strong walls and he would use his God-given abilities to furnish the place so it felt like home.
King finished the outline at about midnight and then wrote a draft in longhand. One of his aides who went to King’s suite that night saw words crossed out three or four times. He thought it looked as though King were writing poetry. King went to sleep at about 4am, giving the text to his aides to print and distribute. The ‘I have a dream’ section was not in it.
Younge’s account suggests that King must have gone to bed that night worried. He explains that for King, the most important thing for him when delivering a sermon was having some sense of where and how he would finish: ‘First I find my landing strip. It’s terrible to be circling around up there without a place to land.’ The problem with the draft that he had prepared was that it seemed a lot stronger on take off than on landing.
As things turned out, Younge explains, ‘the way King ended the speech (freestyling) was far more typical of his sermons than the way he started it (tethered to a written text)’:
But given the enormity of the moment, he could not simply rely on his ability to find the right words at the right time. King was an extraordinary natural orator, but even he was not so confident as to believe his best strategy on such an occasion lay in extemporizing and hoping the Spirit would find him. ‘This was a different audience, a different time, a different place,’ says [John] Lewis. ‘This was truly history, and Dr. King knew it. We all knew it. We’d known it with our own speeches and he knew it with his. He was responding to the occasion. He was speaking not just to the massive audience before us, but to the president, to Congress, to the nation, to the world’.
On the day, King began by following the written text finalized in the early hours:
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Younge notes that immediately King utilizes a favourite rhetorical device that he will employ several times in the speech: anaphora, or repeating a phrase at the beginning of successive clauses:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.
But 100 years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.
Then comes the passage built on the metaphor of the promissory note – a metaphor, says Younge, that came from Clarence Jones, and was based on what actually occurred following the mass arrests in Birmingham that spring that resulted in the need to find a large amount of money at short notice to pay bail for a large number of people. Younge retells the story – one that involves Harry Belafonte, New York Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and the Chase Manhatten Bank.
And so we’ve come here today to dramatize an appalling condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a cheque. 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 would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this cheque – a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Next comes the passage that talks of ‘the fierce urgency of now’, the phrase that Barak Obama would adopt during his first campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination:
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
A key section of the speech is a response to those in government, and in the white population generally, who would ask of civil rights campaigners, ‘when will you be satisfied?’:
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights: “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied and we will not be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
The speech is drawing to a close, and King is searching for his ‘landing strip’. The night before the March, seeking advice from his aides about the speech, King had been told:. ‘Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream.’ It’s trite, it’s cliche. You’ve used it too many times already.’ As Younge explains, King had indeed employed the refrain several times before. For his aides, this speech had to be different. It was going out live to the nation.
As King moved towards his final words, he had a sense, in Younge’s words, ‘that he was falling short’. It was then that Mahalia Jackson, who was standing behind him at the podium, cried out: ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin.’ King set aside his prepared text and adopted the stance of a Baptist preacher. Clarence Jones turned to the person standing next to him and said: ‘Those people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.’
So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.
‘Aw, shit,’ King’s aide Wyatt Walker said, ‘He’s using the dream.’ Clarence Jones thought: ‘He’s off, he’s on his own now, he’s inspired’. King had found his landing strip:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.
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 a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
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!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
That day for a moment it almost seemed that we stood on a height and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not for ever remain that dream one dreamed in agony.
With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning: “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California.
But not only that.
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
In his final chapter, Gary Younge assesses the legacy of King’s speech – in the context of the election of America’s first black president, but also the continuing racial inequalities and injustices of American society in a year that has seen the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of the teenager Trayvon Martin. Younge’s perceptive assessment notes how responses to King’s speech have differed ever since the moment it was given: how the speech has been interpreted in very different ways, and used to support various positions. These are Younge’s closing words:
In the final analysis to ask whether King’s dream has been realized is to misunderstand both his overall politics and the specific ambition of his speech. King was not the kind of activist who pursued a merely finite agenda. The speech in general and the dream sequence in particular are utopian. Standing in the midst of a nightmare, King dreams of a better world where historical wrongs have been righted and good prevails. That is why the speech means so much to me and why I believe that, overall, it has stood the test of time.
I was raised in Britain during the Thatcher years, a time when idealism was mocked and ‘realism’ became an excuse for capitulation to the ‘inevitability’ of unbridled market forces and military aggression. To oppose that agenda was regarded, by some on the Left as well as the Right, as impractical and unrealistic. Realism has no time for dreamers. […] While it is true that we cannot live on dreams alone, the absence of utopian ideas leaves us without a clear ideological and moral centre and therefore facing a void in which politics is deprived of any liberatory potential and reduced to only what is feasible in any given moment.
With a civil rights bill pending and the white population skittish, King could have limited his address to what was immediately achievable. He might have spelled out a ten-point plan and laid out his case for tougher legislation or made the case for fresh campaigns of civil disobedience in the North. He could have reduced himself to an appeal for what was possible in a time when what was possible and pragmatic was neither satisfactory nor sustainable.
Instead he swung for the bleachers. Not knowing whether the task of building the world he was describing was Sisyphean or merely Herculean, he called out in the political wilderness, hoping his voice would someday be heard by those with power to act upon it. In so doing he showed that it is not naive to believe that what is not possible in the foreseeable future may nonetheless be necessary, worth fighting for, and worth articulating. The idealism that underpins his dream is the rock on which our modern rights are built and the flesh on which pragmatic parasites feed. If nobody dreamed of a better world, what would there be to wake up to?
In my next post I’ll explore the musical associations of the March for Jobs and Freedom.
Brilliant piece by Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman today on Tom Dispatch about the meaning of the speech for one who resisted Pinochet’s murderous regime. He concludes:
What would Martin Luther King say if he could return to contemplate what his country has become since his death? What if he could see how the terror and slaughter brought to bear upon New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, had turned his people into a fearful, vengeful nation, ready to stop dreaming, ready to abridge their own freedoms in order to be secure? What if he could see how that obsession with security has fed espionage services and a military-industrial complex run amok?
What would he say if he could observe how that fear was manipulated in order to justify the invasion and occupation of a foreign land against the will of its people? How would he react to the newest laws disenfranchising the very citizens he fought to bring to the voting booths? What sorrow would have gripped his heart as he watched the rich thrive and the poor be ever more neglected and despised, as he observed the growing abyss between the one percent and the rest of the country, not to speak of the power of money to intervene and intercede and decide?
What words would he have used to denounce the way the government surveillance he was under is now commonplace and pervasive, potentially targeting anyone in the United States who happens to own a phone or use email? Wouldn’t he tell those who oppose these policies and institutions inside and outside the United States to stand up and be counted, to march ahead, and not ever to wallow in the valley of despair?
Oddly, despite the fame of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, you will be hard pushed to find a full version of it – video or text – online. That is because King himself secured the copyright to his speech in the months after he made it – reputedly in a bid to use the proceeds to support the civil rights movement. King’s family now own the copyright, which will expire in 2038.
But there are other valuable videos that offer an insight on the March. YouTube has a remarkable TV debate, featuring Marlon Brando, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Joseph Minklelwitz, and Sidney Poitier, talking about the Civil Rights movement. It took place on the day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was hosted by David Schoenbrun and broadcast by CBS.
The March on Washington in Photographs: US National Archives documentary
- ‘I Have a Dream’: full text of King’s speech (BBC)
- Martin Luther King: the story behind his ‘I have a dream’ speech: Gary Younge’s feature in the Guardian
- Martin Luther King: I Have a Dream revisited: BBC Radio 4 asks notable figures to read the speech (slideshow); full programme here.
- Martin Luther King: Radio 4 archive
- 50 Years Later – the Untold History of the March on Washington & MLK’s Most Famous Speech: 50 minute Democracy Now! video, featuring Gary Younge
- US National Archives YouTube channel
- US History Primary Source Collections Online: Civil Rights
- ‘The March‘: documentary film, directed by James Blue and made for American propaganda purposes, nevertheless contains valuable footage of the 1963 Civil Rights March from its planning stages to its culmination in Martin Luther King’s speech
- Making The March: US National Archives blog post on the background to ‘The March’
- Copyright King: Why the “I Have a Dream” Speech Still Isn’t Free
- Thousands march on Washington to remember Martin Luther King’s dream: 50th anniversary report (Observer)