There are a lot of reasons why a society is able to change and why some leaders are able to affect change while others cannot. As tempting as it is to summarize the narrative into a Hollywood story, we have to understand that change, huge cultural shifts in how we treat others and how we see the world, does not come just because of one speech. There are many reasons that include hard work, timing and keen political sense that allow for cultures and society’s to change effectively.
But it is usually the speeches that we remember and that are the touchstones for the narrative of why something could happen and how we understand who we became.
The speech Dr. King delivered that day in August of 1963 is amazing in that it continues to resonate emotionally and aspirationally, even today.
(Here is the speech if you haven’t heard it in awhile)
What’s interesting about this speech is that the most famous refrain “I have a dream” was not even part of the original script. It was an impromptu response to Mahalia Jackson shouting to “tell them about the dream” which seemed to push Dr. King into his more comfortable and natural “preacher” pattern of speaking.
Why is this such a powerful piece of the speech? Why is this the part that resonates? Why wasn’t the original name “Normalcy, Never Again” not the titled that stuck?
I identify three personal reasons why this speech is so memorable and why it still resonates and gives me goose bumps when I hear it. (Some of this analysis is also found in Made To Stick by the Heath Brothers).
1. I can feel his emotion. I use an adage for speakers that I learned from a colleague and a fellow actor who explained to me that “people reflect back the emotion that you give them.” Dr. King’s tone and voice go outside the range of normal speech to hit emotional heights and trigger in us a spiritual reaction (this is the ‘preacher effect’) and allows us to feel his yearning for this new world.
2. The detail. He is describes in incredibly vivid and detailed language what this dream would look like for future generations, making it possible for an entire world to imagine an integrated America during a time when it seemed impossible and dangerous to believe.
3. It’s personal. The words “I have a dream” are personal and inspirational and meant for us. He might as well have been saying “I have a dream for you.” While this might not seem like much, the main difference between leaders who inspire and leaders who instruct is the way that they share their vision and their passion.
“We have a dream” would not have meant the same because he would have been pitting black citizens against white citizens.
“You have a dream” wouldn’t have worked for the same reason.
“There is a dream” would have seemed distant and disconnected from any personal and emotional meaning.
To stand there and own this huge, impossible dream and then to describe it in such beautiful and vivid detail, to root it in the very language of the country’s birth, all of this comes together to resonate in a way that is rarely heard.
There was a lot of work that needed to be done behind the scenes, and it took way longer to get the laws passed that Dr. King wanted. It took a sympathetic president with the power to make it happen and a lot of suffering by the nation and by African Americans as a whole. Many would argue (and they’d be right) that we haven’t really come that far from the issues of poverty and prejudice that afflicted us then, it just looks a little different.
What I want to celebrate today is his bravery in claiming his own personal dream. I think that we are hungry for leaders who are able to communicate with such vulnerability and courage. I believe that the key to becoming a more persuasive and inspirational leader is to communicate from that personal place and take the risk that others might not believe your dream is possible.