I Am Not Your Negro is not a film about James Baldwin: more like a séance presided over by director Raoul Peck in which he summons up from beyond the grave Baldwin’s voice ventriloquised by Samuel L. Jackson in a narration drawn entirely from Baldwin’s work. It is not one of those conventional documentaries cluttered with the thoughts of friends, relatives or experts, but a work of literary archaeology that pieces together a book which Baldwin planned but never wrote, using his notes, plus words – and only his words – from letters, essays and books written in the mid-1970s. It is, perhaps, the best documentary I have ever seen. Continue reading “I Am Not Your Negro: James Baldwin’s words remain as urgent and relevant as they were when written”
I have celebrated writing by Rebecca Solnit many times on this blog. In this post I’m reproducing in its entirety ‘Protest and persist: why giving up hope is not an option’, today’s Guardian long read. Because it is a magnificent essay, one of her best pieces. Every paragraph burns with passion and sings like poetry. The Guardian’s strapline reads: ‘The true impact of activism may not be felt for a generation. That alone is reason to fight, rather than surrender to despair.’ Read on and find inspiration in these troubled times. Continue reading “Protest and persist: why giving up hope is not an option, by Rebecca Solnit”
So now we know what it felt like to be alive when Hitler came to power. That was my first reaction to hearing of Donald Trump’s devastating victory in the U.S. Presidential election. As Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, ‘Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.’ Coming after the Brexit vote, Trump’s win induces feelings of total despair. Can we find any hope on this dark day? Continue reading “Holding on to Hope in the Dark after Trump”
The words of Martin Luther King, from Jeremy Corbyn’s Twitter feed. What more is there to say this morning?
To face history is to face the tragic. Which is why many prefer to look away. To decide to engage oneself in History requires, even when the decision is a desperate one, hope.
– John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook
Watching Ava DuVernay’s film Selma which takes as its subject the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches brought back memories of how, as a teenager growing up in a Cheshire village at the time, the Civil Rights Movement and the music associated with it played a key part in the awakening of my political consciousness. Reading or hearing on the radio about the marchers, their dignity and bravery, and the murders and brutality inflicted upon black Americans in the South, had a deeply radicalising effect on me.
The anthems sung by the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, and the electrifying assertions of black pride from soul artists such as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke just added to the intensity of my feelings. And it wasn’t just me, of course; in the way of these things, the ideas and methods seeded in the civil rights movement spread on the wind – to the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, to South Africa, and to student activists throughout the world. Continue reading “Songs of Freedom: the Selma playlist”
‘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)
All of us see the world as it exists; fewer envision what it might look like if made to change; and fewer still try to put together the people and ideas that make change happen. Paul Robeson was one; Martin Luther King, Jr. was one; Bobby Kennedy became one. And, of course, Nelson Mandela. I had just enough vision to see that they were visionaries, and to do what I could to help.
– Harry Belafonte, My Song
Growing up in the 1950s, Harry Belafonte’s velvety voice was ubiquitous: ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ on Housewives’ Choice, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ at Christmas (two of my Mum’s favourites) and ‘There’s A Hole In My Bucket’ and ‘The Banana Boat Song’ (Day-O’) on Children’s Favourites. By the sixties I’d tuned out, regarding Belafonte as a relic of the staid, conservative times from which my generation were energetically extricating ourselves. So I had no sense of Belafonte the political activist and committed civil rights campaigner. When it came to the March on Washington in 1963, it was Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary that I saw on the platform, unaware that Belafonte had helped organise the protest.
Belafonte only swam back into my consciousness in the 1980s, watching with my toddler daughter the episode of The Muppet Show that had Harry Belafonte as star guest – the one where he talked about African mythology and how the elements turn the world around before singing ‘Turn the World Around’.
So I learned a great deal from the very fine documentary Sing Your Song which I watched the other day at FACT. Directed by Susanne Rostock, who has made a number of documentaries about political issues, the film is more autobiography than biography, being produced by his daughter Gina, raspily narrated by Belafonte, and released at the same time as his memoir My Song. What becomes clear right from the start is that, in telling his life story, Belafonte intends to focus less on his career as an entertainer, instead highlighting his enduring engagement with political issues. The pre-credits sequence is intense and powerful – an explosive montage of images from key political struggles with which Belafonte has been associated skilfully intercut with the sound of African drums.
The story begins with Belafonte returning to the apartment building in Harlem where he was born in 1927, the son of a Jamaican cleaning lady, Melvine Love, and a ship’s cook, Harold Bellanfanti, who soon abandoned the family leaving Harry with little more than his name:
I was born into poverty, grew up in poverty, and for a long time poverty was all I thought I’d know.
The film briefly narrates his early life – growing up in Jamaica, before returning to Harlem in his early teens where he discovers the American Negro Theatre and the excitement of performing. From there the film follows Belafonte’s rise from the jazz and folk clubs of Greenwich Village and Harlem to his emergence as a star.
But little time is spent on details that usually occupy hagiographic accounts of a superstar’s career. Belafonte, now 85, wants to focus on how, in America in the 1950s and 1960s, even for someone as successful and high profile as Harry Belafonte, life meant enduring the same Jim Crow laws and prejudices that every other black man, woman and child in America was facing. Following in the footsteps of inspirations such as Huddie Leadbetter and Paul Robeson, Belafonte refused to back down, and became deeply committed to the civil rights movement. It was the politics, he has said, that impelled him to compile this memoir:
The tugging by my daughter, Gina, to document my own journey. For many years I had resisted prodding by several who felt that I should both write and film my story. The idea as an end in itself seemed too self-serving. But I was awakened to the possibilities of making such a commitment by revealing the stories that could be told of and by all those with whom I shared an unending quest for justice.
He tells how, in 1956, with ‘Day-O’ top of the Billboard chart, ‘one day I picked up the phone to hear a courtly Southern voice say, ‘You don’t know me, Mr. Belafonte, but my name is Martin Luther King Jr’. Never content to simply be an entertainer, Belafonte, even at great personal cost, became deeply and passionately involved at the heart of the civil rights movement and countless other political and social causes. The film reveals the key role he played – for example, helping to organise the 1963 March on Washington, and acting as a conduit between Dr. King and the Kennedys, educating them about the situation in the American south and steering them towards a clearer commitment to civil rights. At the heart of this was his close friendship with Martin Luther King, and one of the most moving sequences in the film recounts his personal devastation at Dr. King’s death.
The film recounts how Belafonte tirelessly raised funds for the movement and got fellow luminaries to lend their support – their is some remarkable footage of Sammy Davis Jr, Shelley Winters, and Nina Simone performing at a concert for marchers that Belafonte organised before the last leg of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. Another dramatic account tells how he enlisted Sidney Poitier to accompany him on a dangerous trip to Mississippi, in the summer of the freedom rides in 1964, to deliver funds to civil rights workers.
Sing Your Song integrates original interviews with a wealth of archival material from home movies to newsreels and film and TV snippets. One with which the film illustrates how deeply institutionalised racism was in America at the time occurred when, recording an episode of a TV show in March 1968, Belafonte was singing a duet with Petula Clark and the two touched. Chrysler, the show’s sponsor objected to the ‘interracial touching’ fearing to offend Southern viewers. Both Clark and Belafonte refused to re-shoot the performance.
In another archival clip from a 1963 CBS special, Belafonte participates in a discussion about the March on Washington with some fellow marchers (all of them men) – Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, James Baldwin, Charlton Heston (huh?) and the film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It’s an amazing piece – both for the seriousness of discussion and their clarity, on network TV, about seeking radical change in America.
Yet another piece of archive footage, probably never seen before now, is of a segment from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS in 1968 in which Belafonte sings ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival’ against a backdrop of newsreel footage of police brutality during the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The entire clip was never aired by CBS and ultimately resulted in the show being cancelled by CBS.
After detailing the dramatic events of 1968 – the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy – the film seems to jump a couple of decades, with Belafonte recounting how his activism increasingly shifted to Africa, where he campaigned against apartheid and hunger, and teamed up with great African musicians such as Miriam Makeba. The film records how Belafonte travelled to Ethiopia during the 1985 famine and went on to inspire the USA For Africa album and video of ‘We Are the World’ to raise funds for famine relief.
Belafonte worked with Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Angela Davis to garner support for the Native American occupation of the town of Wounded Knee, and protested American involvement in Haiti that led to the coup against the elected radical populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
More recently, as the film records, Belafonte demonstrated for peace in Iraq, and has spoken out about the injustices of child and black incarceration in America, and the criminalization of poverty. He denounced the American justice system for its ‘prisons filled with victims of poverty’, describing the situation as ‘the new slavery’ and arguing that jail has become the most commonly used instrument to deal with the issue of race. In response to the crisis of incarcerating young people, he has created The Gathering for Justice to stop child incarceration. Another dramatic clip used in the film shows a distressed five year old girl being physically restrained and shackled by security guards in a classroom.
Harry Belafonte, now 85, has not eased up on his political activism. He supported the Occupy protests, and Sing Your Song ends with the same question with which the film opens:
What do you do now?
Here is how Philip French reviewed this excellent film in The Observer:
Susanne Rostock has long worked as an editor on American political and society documentaries, including a number directed by Michael Apted, and Sing Your Song, which she both directed and edited, is a skilfully compiled celebratory biography of Harry Belafonte. He was born into poverty in Harlem in 1927, raised in his father’s native Jamaica, and after serving at sea in the US navy at the end of the second world war, he worked as a janitor before being drawn into the theatre. From the late 1940s on he was primarily a singer, becoming sensationally successful in the 1950s as the “King of Calypso”. Sadly he has made only a handful of films, three of them minor classics – Carmen Jones, Odds Against Tomorrow and Kansas City, a role that Robert Altman had to talk him into playing.
This excellent film, eloquently narrated by its octogenarian subject in that wonderfully husky voice, carefully balances an account of his career in show business with his 50-year commitment to civil and human rights in America and around the world, not just for fellow African-Americans but for Native Americans, Hispanics and people throughout Africa. The two aspects are of course closely interwoven, for he has courageously used his popularity and his charismatic presence to challenge the colour bar in the media, to attract attention to causes he believes in and to recruit his fellow performers to lend their support. The film’s title, which reflects the way his life is integrated, comes from a piece of advice his hero Paul Robeson gave the young Belafonte when he dropped in at a folk music club where Harry was performing. “Get them to sing your song,” Robeson said, “and they’ll want to know who you are.” For the most part Belafonte appears to use his power and influence wisely and well, and he emerges at the end as a man of bravery and probity, a formidable contributor and witness to his times.
In this Guardian video, Harry Belafonte tells Sarfraz Manzoor about his life and work in music, cinema and fighting for social equality. He also discusses his friendship with Martin Luther King, his relationship with President John F Kennedy, and the humiliation that led him to become more heavily involved in the fight against racial segregation.
The trailer for Sing Your Song:
‘Island in the Sun’
‘Turn the World Around’ from The Muppet Show
Belafonte interviewed on Canadian TV in 1967:
On 24 April 1961 Bob Dylan earned a $50 session fee for playing harmonica on Harry Belafonte’s rendition of ‘Midnight Special’. It was his recording debut:
And finally … hearing ‘Day-O’ again, I was reminded of Stan Freberg’s take on ‘The Banana Boat Song’; as a kid I thought it was hysterical. I think it’s still pretty funny…
- Sing Your Song: excellent, and inspiring, official website
- Sing Your Song: Interview with Harry Belafonte: HBO
- The Radical Entertainment of Harry Belafonte: review of Belafonte’s My Song: A Memoir (New York Times)
- Harry Belafonte interview on the Today programme (28.05.2012)