Gary Younge: Unlocking the myth of Dr King


Last week at Westminster University, one of the UK’s greatest columnist, Gary Younge, gave a master class around the mythology of Dr Martin Luther King, and in particularly the ‘I have a dream’ Speech. Other guests on the evening included Baroness Lola Young Prof Kurt Barling and the Vice Chancellor Godfrey Petts.

Younge told a packed audience at the University’s famous Lumiere theatre:

The easiest thing in the world is to take Dr King out of his political context, place on a pedal stool and view him as just an extra ordinary Black man who was a great orator.”

Placing King in this iconic bubble, argued Younge, hid the real truth about what King stood for: Fighting poverty, racism and injustice- moreover, it ignored the tens of thousands who were also part of an extraordinary time in American history.

The traumatic years that led up to that most famous speech helped build the blocks that would form King's political platform at the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC in the summer of 1963.

For example, in 1960 1- year old Franklyn McLaine and his three college friends made a heroic stand in Woolworths store in North Carolina. Together they defied the racial aparthied laws and sat in the ‘Whites only’ section of the stores soda bar.

Recalling those events that helped shape Younge's book, “The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Dr.’s Dream.” Mclaine told Younge:

We wanted to go beyond what our parents had done. The worst that would happen to me that day was that the Klu Klux Klan would kill. but I had no fear for my safety. In that moment I felt elation as though they couldn’t touch me."

In the months and years to come, there would be many more courageous acts, not least in Birmingham Alabama in the early months of spring 1963. The city was already infamous for the bombings of Black leaders, nevertheless, when Black school children across the city began to protest against segregation and were met with water canons and rabid dogs, it was to become one of the most visible and shocking illustrations of American post war racism. Children water cannoned to the ground, clubbed by officers of the law, attacked by their dogs.

After this and other incidents the idea of for the march gathered pace in part Younge explains because King’s Civil Rights movement was losing control of the agenda. They were very much away that the had to become more relevant and connect to a broader base. They decided that at its core the march would be about jobs.

The organizing of a march, the likes of which had never been seen before, was in itself a gargantuan task. In the main, it was organized by a teams of volunteers who would co-ordinate buses arriving from all over America. The Government put the National Guard on stand bye, and Government officials had a veto switch on the microphones if any speaker was deemed to incite violence.

Younge also spoke about the politics of the speech. Which in the main was more a lecture until King went off script to talk about the ‘Dream’. Interestingly his close colleagues told him days before the speech to drop the ‘I have a Dream’ element which he’d used several times before. But on the day and during his speech one of his friends and confidant African American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson encouraged King to ‘ tell them about the Dream Martin’. Pushing aside his notes, Younge explains, that King went from giving a lecture to given a sermon. A sermon that would change the world.

Gary Younge’s lecture was indeed a masterclass in ensuring that we don’t lose sight of what King stood for. His book, which gives meaning to that historical speech and the political context in which it took place, is masterfully written. The Americans are truly lucky to have him there - he lives and works in Chicago- articulating the African American experience, and American politics.

We hope he’ll make back to the UK more often.

OBV has three of Gary’s books to give away in a raffle.

What was the title of Martin Luther King’s book about Rosa Parks and the bus boycott?

Answers to

Simon Woolley