The Speech

Martin Luther King The Speech Book Gary Younge

In today’s Guardian, Owen Jones rightly points out that positive social change which the left fights for is about collective action rather than individuals. But the leaders and spokespeople in the battles for equality and freedom are significant in modern history as flag bearers of the day and an inspiration for the future.

Several have departed the stage recently. The death of Tony Benn yesterday served to remind of his key principles in challenging power without accountability while the more sudden loss of Bob Crow earlier in the week led to the realisation many workers in the UK could do with union representation of their own in a climate where zero-hours contracts, the exploitation of migrant workers and the gradual dismantling of employee rights by the right-wing Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, have largely slipped under the radar.

On an international scale the greatest leader and agent for change yet, Nelson Mandela, passed away this year with a legacy that will inspire generations to come across the World. In a different strand, but still significant, the US’ Pete Seegar also died recently. In his own way he was a torch shining a light in the struggle for good. Arguably the most important figure from the US movement in the sixties though was Martin Luther King, and he is best remembered for his ‘I Have Dream’ speech in Washington DC, 28 August 1963, which Gary Younge’s book, written 50 years on, tells the story of.

The book’s preface is the speech itself, where, against advice, King repeated the phrase from his previous speeches, “I have a dream.” The speech came at the end of a march in the capital, where Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performed, and King was the final speaker, with common sense finally prevailing and allowing him more time to talk to the masses.

Younge sets the scene of the time leading up to the march, where six-year old black girls are bullied and brutally beaten by police because of the colour of their skin, there is widespread race segregation and a nervous government with a particularly unsympathetic Attorney General in Bobby Kennedy.

Amidst this there was the desire from many King was fighting for, for a quicker pace of change. It led to an unspoken unholy alliance between the pacifist King and the Black Nationalist Malcolm X, who while representing their own opposing beliefs, tactics and constituents, almost strategically played good cop, bad cop.

The impact on the nation of King’s speech was immediate, as Younge demonstrates with both statistics and evidence from the time. However, real change over time has only been gradual though enough to create a culture, as Younge points out, for right-wingers and some Republicans to have to try and hide their real racist outlook.

In the final quarter of the book there is an examination of legacy of the speech in the USA today, with the doubt about whether the Reverend Martin Luther King would be satisfied, particularly with regards the limited mobility of the high numbers of black people born into poverty.

The book recognizes that without Barack Obama, the country’s first black President, things may be worse, but points out in many areas, there is plenty of room for improvement. Obama, as the book notes, has referenced King several times at key moments, including in an excerpt from one of his own speeches included in the book, where he eloquently explains why in recognizing history and the imperfections of man, negotiations don’t always work, and he can’t be a pacifist as a defender of the American people.

Younge makes clear the scale of the work still to be done for equal opportunities to really exist in the United States but most importantly he documents an environment where change was essential and achieved, celebrating the importance of a great leader of the left with a final sentence in the book:

“If nobody dreamed of a better world, what would there be to wake up to?”

‘The Speech’ by Gary Younge is available from The Guardian Bookshop.


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