Wednesday, January 12, 2011

TV news reports, and Dr. King

Here is a proposal: that it is time to change one of the ways we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The observance of Dr. King’s January 15th birthday honors one of America’s most magnificent leaders. His “I Have a Dream” speech, from 1963, remains one of the most luminous, most remarkable speeches ever delivered.

Yet the speech, I believe, is in danger of losing its potency. Not because it is in actuality any less powerful, today—but because parts of it, for years, have been relied upon, too reflexively, in news coverage of Dr. King's life.

Whether it has been each January (at the time of the King holiday), or on other occasions over time, news reports about Dr. King (I am thinking largely of television broadcasts) have routinely played brief segments of—usually, certain sentences from—his 1963 address.

Such as, part of the address’s conclusion—in which King looked to the day when “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!’”

Such words are intensely moving, and meaningful. Yet I am guessing that these, and other segments of the speech, have become the only words of King’s with which many Americans—in particular, younger Americans—are familiar.

In general, as regards history, the notion of repetition has enormous value, reminding us of that which is crucial and profound: the words, facts, images and emotions of the past.

Repetition, of course, can also be used with beauty and power, in the art of rhetoric—as in the recurring “I have a dream” phrase in King’s 1963 address.

Yet repetition—when employed without sufficient care—can also achieve the following: it can help to transform that which is meaningful, or beautiful, or painful, or momentous, into that which we begin, over time (perhaps less than consciously), to take for granted. I believe we have begun taking King’s 1963 speech for granted.

I recently watched various videos of Dr. King on YouTube—interviews from the 1960s, for example, on Meet the Press, The Mike Douglas Show, and other programs. Another well-known video I watched—widely regarded as another of King’s greatest speeches—is the haunting address he delivered the night before his death. (“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now…”)

In these different videos, King’s moral force, and his rhetorical force, are gripping. Yet we do not see these other videos often enough.

Through the years, journalistic coverage of Dr. King has, most certainly, been impelled by the best of intentions. Yet the regular reliance upon brief parts of his best-known speech has, I believe, provided a constricted view of his life, and legacy. A new effort to capture a more expansive sense of Dr. King would be a meaningful way to remember one of America’s finest, most vital, and most heroic citizens.