By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader
Some may think it a stretch because of the reverence accorded the iconic oratory of martyred freedom fighter Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream” may be the most referenced and repeated public address outside of the Bible.
But long after the dust of a torrid political campaign settles and the 45th president is sworn in this January, pundits and those at the grassroots level may eventually agree that the DNC speech delivered by Michelle Obama can be spoken of in the same breath.
For you purists, don’t confuse this ringing endorsement with zeal inspired by the moment. I’ve considered this analytically before daring to make such a suggestion to such a diverse and intellectual readership. Just hear me out.
In comparing the two speeches, let’s delve into what’s called in gymnastics, diving, and ice skating competitions – “degree of difficulty.” That is, a move may be eye-pleasing but simple or less flashy but intricate.
Four areas of analysis help determine the assessment of difficulty for these two momentous speeches. They are (1) context, the environment that precipitated content of the remarks; (2) how the times in which speeches were made were factors; (3) the audience in the immediate venue and (4) the impact on people and society beyond that space in time.
The King speech responded to abhorrent atrocities of Jim Crow in the South and subtle bigotry throughout the U.S., giving voice to Black Americans and all people of goodwill committed to the creation of a more just, fair and equitable society for all who are entitled to citizenship in the nation touted as the leader of the free world.
Mrs. Obama’s speech came amidst elements of division in a nation torn for the past decade or more over partisan politics, indifference, intolerance and contempt for civility. Even as some of the more visible signal progress – as in the election of the first African American president – so many others threaten gains, like the proliferation of hate groups and abject lack of cooperation with the administration from Republican lawmakers.
Tensions were high in 1963. In the months preceding the Washington D.C. delivery of Dr. King, the civil rights leaders had been jailed for protests in Birmingham – where rogue Sheriff “Bull” Connor ordered attack dogs and forceful fire fighter water hoses turned on peaceful protestors. It was also the year the Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers was slain by racists in the driveway of his home.
Similar tension marks the timing of the First Lady’s speech which followed an apocalyptic portrayal of the nation less than a week earlier during the Republican National Convention. It also came in the wake of years of alleged police abuse of power with Black citizens and subsequent attacks on law enforcement officers. Hate-filled rhetoric of some politicians intensified the “we – they” climate.
Dr. King had the benefit of speaking to the choir. His massive throngs made the trek from every corner of the nation to demonstrate the discontent he articulated in his message.
Mrs. Obama, on the other hand, faced an audience fractured by divided loyalties to the top two Democratic primary finalists as well as the nagging doubts of those critical of fairness of the election process. She approached a podium at which every speaker that preceded her had been jeered or booed.
The words of Dr. King transformed a nation. “I Have a Dream” became the centerpiece of the most significant movement in American history and did more to influence the thinking and actions of individuals and institutions than any public comments of the 20th Century. The impact of “I Have a Dream” is that it became the moral barometer for the free world – a lofty achievement.
There is no way at this point to assess the eventual influence of Michelle Obama’s speech but the immediate impact was stunning.
She negated the ‘doom and gloom’ admonitions of the Republican candidate. She provided Bernie Sanders and his followers the respect and acknowledgement they earned. She affirmed the legacy of her husband while inspiring hope in the promise of his potential successor, Hillary Clinton. And lastly, she validated the aspirations of women and girls.
That’s a lot to digest.
In the final analysis, there likely has been no speech more dynamic than the historic address of Dr. King. But the fact that there is a legitimate argument that can be made that First Lady Michelle Obama’s deeply moving, intelligent and compassionate address seriously approached that plateau is accolade enough.
Thank you, Michelle, for bringing a nation back to its senses.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.