Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Musings: Behind the Dream - The Making of a Speech that Transformed a Nation

Behind the Dream
Behind the Dream:  The Making of a Speech that Transformed a Nation is an account by Clarence B. Jones, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's lawyer and close friend.  In the book, Jones tells readers about the days leading up to and immediately following the March on Washington, his role in the events, and his thoughts on its impact on America.

The book is very short- less than 200 pages long, with large font, wide margins, quotes that are given entire pages, and a lot of pictures.  It's more of a long retrospective than a book.  It's interesting but not particularly ground-breaking.  We don't get much insight into the personalities involved in the March.  This is probably because the book is so short, but it was disappointing nonetheless.  I did like the way Jones set the book up, though.  He says that passing Civil Rights legislation is not about right or wrong, it's about political leverage.  Only when politicians feel a great deal of pressure to do something do they actually go out and do it.  The March on Washington was the Civil Rights movement's leverage on Washington to pass Civil Rights legislation, and to go further and deeper with it than most elected officials were willing to go.

I read Gail Collins' America's Women some time ago and learned that Rosa Parks and other prominent women in the Civil Rights movement were all but ignored in planning the March.  I really wanted to get Jones' perspective on this issue.  He was frustratingly vague on it:
In terms of the discourse on the racial environment at the time, the women were virtually exiled from the podium...During the planning stages, we had argued over the role women would play in The March.  Ted Brown periodically brought up the question of their participation.  When I first heard about the issue, I had an immediate reaction that I kept to myself...The Movement was male dominated, and those males were ego-driven.
Ah!! Why can't you just tell us what you really thought, Jones?  Why do you still keep your "immediate reaction" to yourself?  He goes on to say that he now regrets the decision not to include women (of course- who would say that they did not?), but that wasn't what I wanted.

I was frustrated because it seems like throughout this book, Jones was tiptoeing around issues and trying not to offend anyone that had been involved in the March.  He hints that Martin Luther King had a big ego, but never gives us details on how this ego (or anyone else's) affected the March on Washington.  I wanted to go much more in-depth and read many more details than Jones gave me.

Jones did provide me with a lot of information I didn't know earlier, though.  For example, he points out that "no fundamental change in race relations in America could be accomplished and successfully sustained unless it was done under the political leadership of a white man from the South."  This was true in the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  The first president to break that trend?  Barack Obama.  Jones' thoughts on Obama and the state of race relations today were interesting and timely, but I wish he had used that space in the book to give us greater insight into Martin Luther King and the other March planners rather than his thoughts on Obama today.

The coolest part of this book was learning that MLK really just improvised the "I have a dream" portion of his speech.  He started the speech by reading almost completely from the notes that Jones had written up for him.  But then he went off his notes and straight into history.  When you listen to the speech below, I am sure you'll be just as impressed and captivated as I am, especially with the knowledge that none of that was planned in advance.  It's a wonderful speech, extremely powerful, and if it resonates so much with us today, via grainy black and white video, just imagine how amazing it must have been to hear it in person.

15 comments:

  1. If you actually want to know all the details that this book omitted, the very best resource in my opinion is the 3 volume masterpiece by Taylor Branch on MLK - the books are: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan's Edge. They are divided by periods of time, so you actually don't have to read all three if you don't want to, but to me it was worth the journey!

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    1. Oh, thank you! I will look into that for sure. I should have known you'd have a great recommendation about this topic for me- you read so widely in the Civil Rights movement.

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  2. I am reading a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Just Can't Stop Talking, and it points out in the beginning sections that Rosa Parks, was in fact an introvert. The author asserts that the collusion of Parks and MLK was a very amazing thing for Civil Rights, because although Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, she was in fact a very introverted and quiet person, who was not comfortable addressing crowds, this is something that she also states in her biography. I think it's interesting that she was not included in the planning of the March, and I felt that I had to share what I found out while reading. I recommend Quiet to you as well. It's a very impressive book.

    As to why other women were not included, I am just as confused as you are, but your review today really makes me think and makes me want to read this book as well as the books that Jill mentions. I am sadly lacking knowledge when it comes to American history, and especially in the area of Civil Rights.

    Very nice review today, Aarti!

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    1. Oh, interesting! I didn't know Rosa Parks was an introvert. In the America's Women book, I thought I remembered a quote by Parks mentioning that she hadn't even been invited until the last minute to attend, and she sounded upset by it, but maybe I misinterpreted that or the quote was taken out of context.

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  3. He just made it up? So cool

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  4. That bit about his improvisation with the speech is fantastic. And I think i'll look up the books that Rhapsody suggests.

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    1. Yes, I was really surprised to learn that as well, especially considering just how powerfully he delivered it and really expanded upon the idea.

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  5. I haven't read any books specifically about MLK Jr, but I read a book about famous speeches that was very good. It included the "I have a dream" speech and showed how many of the historically great and memorable speeches have common structures. It was very interesting but sadly I don't remember the title off the top of my head because I read it years ago.

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    1. Does it talk about how a lot of speeches are improvised, too? That was so fascinating to me.

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  6. I would've thought a short book would have a particular strong focus on something, so maybe that was an issue, that it was about something big that there's lots to talk about on it. Blodeuedd makes a point that has me thinking - did the author possibly just want to create a book rather than really inform?

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    1. I don't really know. I think he wanted to bring renewed attention to the speech and racism today, but I don't think he did so in a manner that was particularly successful.

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  7. Not including women as major speakers was typical of the movement. Men spoke and led primiarily, but women did the basic orgaanizing that got crowds. There are several moving books on women in the movement. Perhaps Vicki Crawfor's would be place to start. Or the biography of Ella Baker by Barbara Rangsby. Bayard Rustin, who was responsible for planning the 1963 rally was gay and not asked to speak either.

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    1. Thanks very much! Rustin is mentioned in this book as being the planner and Jones talks about his own decision not to be more greatly involved as being heavily influenced by his homosexuality and previous records.

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  8. Too bad the book didn't go into more detail. I think there hasn't been nearly enough written about MLK and the movement he led.

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