Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.
Christopher Columbus discovered America.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a “dream.”
We like to remember history in short and snappy bumper-sticker sound bites. Real life is a bit more complicated.
Columbus “discovered” a “New World” that was new to him anyway, not to the people who already lived in it.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did free slaves in the states that seceded. He had to prod, cajole, bribe and browbeat Congress to free the rest.
And the Rev. Dr. King did have a “dream” that he described eloquently at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago. But more important, he had an agenda.
He described his dream so powerfully and memorably in the concluding portion of his 16-minute speech that it has been too easy for the rest of us to forget the agenda that he laid out in the earlier part.
That’s understandable. The magnetic invitation of King’s majestic words, delivered with a drumbeat refrain of “I have a dream...,” quite properly deserves a top-shelf position in the canon of American oratory.
With generous references to the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, King grounded his speech, not in radical notions of social change but as a fulfillment of the nation’s founders’ noblest ideals. His dream, as he put it, was “as old as the American dream.”
And the story of how its closing “dream” refrain almost didn’t happen has become legendary in civil rights circles. As Clarence B. Jones, who helped King draft speeches, describes it, King had major-megaton case of writer’s block over how to end his speech. He was the final speaker of the day and wanted to leave his audiences -- on the Washington Mall, in the White House and in homes across America -- inspired. But how?