The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech twice in 1963—in Detroit in June and, two months later, in Washington, D.C. But the reference resonated differently in the two locations, according to Dr. Illya E. Davis.
Davis, a professor at Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, and an authority on the civil rights leader, told a University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) gathering that the difference stemmed from the purpose of each speech. He made the comments during a Jan. 20 presentation at UMGC, which included an interview with Davis by Natasha Rodriguez, UMGC’s director of Multicultural Training and Diversity Programs.
The event, entitled “Together, We Can be the Dream,” was part of the Martin Luther King Day of Service celebration at UMGC.
Davis said the Detroit speech is referred to as the “Walk to Freedom” speech, while the one in Washington is more frequently known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.
In Detroit, King was talking about “the particular sufferings of the Blacks of Detroit, so when you listen to the speech, he’s going to speak directly to them,” Davis said. In Washington, where King was addressing a broader national audience of Blacks and whites, the goal was to develop a “notion of community.”
Where the two speeches dovetail is their view of freedom—that Blacks and whites are bound together and freedom for one is contingent on freedom for the other, Davis explained.
The Detroit speech to a largely Black audience of 125,000 people occurred as part of a march to protest recent shootings and traditional marginalization of Black people. King was in Detroit to address the specific sufferings of Blacks in that city, Davis said. After the civil rights leader expounded on his dream, he later added: “This is my faith.”
“This explodes the very limited notion of making this a mere dream,” Davis said, noting that a dream can be “ethereal.” By talking about what he can imagine then linking it to his faith, King was opening the path to a movement, Davis said.
“When you listen to the Detroit talk, you will fundamentally get the idea that he's encouraging movement,” Davis said. “He wants the people of Detroit to continue to fight for those of us in the South, but more importantly, fight for yourselves in Detroit. When he gets to the point of saying ‘I have a dream,’ it is inextricably bound to the idea of what must be done and to imagine a better world through your action.”
Davis said King told the Detroit audience that white people were not inherently bad and that God was not saving Black and Brown people, but that God was there to save all people. Davis said King was walking a fine line that sought action from Black people without provoking a counterproductive backlash by whites. It is the same tension that arose with the Black Lives Matter movement, Davis added.
The idea that the speech was encouraging a movement came directly from King’s reference to what he could imagine, Davis said.
“I can imagine my children being respected. I can imagine Black people no longer in fear of their lives by unregulated violence toward them,” Davis said. “And so, whenever I listen to the speech, I replaced ‘I have a dream,’ with ‘I can imagine, I can imagine.’”
Davis said both speeches challenge listeners to ask themselves, “What is my responsibility?”
“If one really delves into the implications of what he's saying, and a world that is significantly transformed in the ways that he asked, that's impressive,” Davis noted.
During the UMGC discussion, Rodriguez asked Davis what he thought had changed for Black people since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In some ways, there has been amazing progress, Davis said, and in other ways, little at all. In material ways, many Black people have advanced markedly and danger is not at their doorstep as it once was.
“That's where we are now, where we have this sort of sense of nothing else needs to be done because the material conditions for many, not for most, have changed,” he said. However, he noted that the psychological damage of racial injustice continues, and huge numbers of Black people remain uneducated or under-educated, unable to join those who are living better lives.
“I'm doing better than my mother did,” Davis said. “But there's still someone suffering and, so for me, the idea that people are suffering is still at the top of my list. I might be doing better, but what about others?”