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Famous MLK Speech Has Roots in the Civil Rights Leader's Childhood PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 10 October 2011 10:17
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Wake Forest University undergrad traces “I Have a Dream” back to King's high school speech

You may know all or parts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech by heart, but you may not know that famous speech contains striking parallels to an address about brotherly love and nonviolence he gave as a 15-year-old high school student. Despite years of scholarly investigation of King's life, writings and oratory, it took a Wake Forest University undergrad to uncover those remarkable similarities.

William Murphy, then a first-year student, found that King shared the underlying themes, principles and images of his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech during a speech contest in Dublin, Georgia, in 1944 - nearly twenty years before his national address on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

"I was doing research online for my first year seminar, and found Dr. King's winning speech from the Georgia Black Elks contest when he was still in high school," said Murphy, who is now a junior. "As I read it, along with several other speeches and really got into his writings, I noticed the similarities to his most famous speech. His early writing had the same themes and imagery, but they were definitely more polished when he performed 'I Have a Dream.'"

His teacher, Dr. John Llewellyn, associate professor of communication, says he was surprised that other scholars hadn't seen the similarities previously. "The parallels between the speeches are so striking," said Llewellyn. "Brotherly love, nonviolence and freedom from racial hatred are all contained in his 1944 speech. He even described scenes of black and white children playing together in harmony - famously echoed in the 'Dream' speech."

As the nation prepares to honor King with a national monument, Murphy's findings show we still have much to learn about the civil rights pioneer.

In the paper the two men co-authored, they point out King's 1944 speech mentions the history of Marian Anderson, one of the great contralto singers of her time, banned by the Daughters of the American Revolution from singing at Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin in 1939. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the group in protest, and invited Anderson to sing on the Washington Mall - the same site where King would present his stirring 'Dream' speech 24 years later.

"Anderson's effect on King was not only incorporated in his 15-year-old writings, but in his more polished 'I Have a Dream' presentation," Llewellyn said. "Will's research found that Anderson sang 'My Country 'Tis of Thee' in the same drawn out phrasing King used in 1963, and she closed her 1939 performance with two Negro spirituals. King ended his 'Dream' speech in the same way, which is where the 'Free at last!' quotation comes from."

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial will be dedicated on October 16, after Hurricane Irene postponed the original dedication ceremony. The date is also the 16th anniversary of the Million Man March, which was inspired by King's 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom - where "I Have a Dream" electrified the nation.

Original texts of King's 1944 speech and 1963 speeches, along with the paper Murphy and Llewellyn wrote, may be seen at http://go.wfu.edu/mlkspeech.

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