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Screening “I Have a Dream”

It may be difficult to view the entire 17-minute speech online, but two noteworthy films were made about the March on Washington that highlight that momentous day

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Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his famous speech. Image courtesy of USIA photograph, National Archives

One of the towering moments in 20th-century oratory, the speech we now know as “I Have a Dream” was delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was one of the turning points in the civil rights movement, a gathering of more than 200,000 people on the National Mall to hear leaders from the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups.

At one point called “A Cancelled Check,” the speech was actually an amalgam of several of King’s previous talks and sermons, including “Unfulfilled Hopes” in 1959 and “The American Dream” in 1961 and 1962. This may not be the best place to discuss the purpose, merits and antecedents of “I Have a Dream,” although I confess that its ending never fails to move me to tears. What’s more germane is how difficult it has become to actually view the entire 17-minute speech.

You can find any number of truncated versions on YouTube, and television networks reliably pull out clips every February for Black History Month. (Smithsonian.com offers the full audio version.) The opening ceremonies marking the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington, D.C., has provided even more opportunities for more broadcast segments about the speech. (Hurricane Irene has caused the postponement of these ceremonies.)

Some 1,600 press passes were issued by organizers of the March, and it was covered extensively by both print and broadcast journalists. Cameramen were stationed throughout the National Mall, even in the Washington Monument. CBS broadcast the Lincoln Memorial segment live, and the three major networks led with the story on their nightly news programs.

Surprisingly, few of the initial press accounts dealt with King’s speech, focusing instead on the upbeat mood of the attendees and agreeing with the demands for equality expressed throughout the day. Many writers also pointed out the celebrities in attendance such as Mahalia Jackson and Joan Baez.

But as “I Have a Dream” grew in popularity, it also attracted legal attention. In 1999, the King estate sued CBS over the copyright status of the speech. The dispute centered around the fact that King had not registered his speech with the Registrar of Copyrights. However, the United State Court of Appeals ruled that the King estate did in fact have copyright over the speech. (The parties eventually settled out of court.) The court decision partially explains why video of the complete speech is hard to find online. The audio version, pulled from a radio broadcast, is considered in the public domain.

Two films made prior to that decision incorporated large portions of the speech. Released in 1964, The March was made by the United States Information Agency, the government’s unofficial propaganda arm whose films were shown mostly to foreign audiences.  George Stevens, Jr., at the time the director of the USIA, wanted a documentary about the march despite the controversy he knew it would generate. “We hired many 35mm cameramen through Hearst News and covered the event thoroughly,” he told me over e-mail in 2009. “I think it was afterward that I asked Jim Blue to become involved. No one at Hearst could craft the kind of film we wanted.” Stevens was pleased with the results: “It was, for the most part, wonderfully received by USIA posts overseas.” The film is available for streaming or download from the Internet Archive, or split up in three parts on YouTube

Conceived and produced by Ely Landau, the second film, King….A Filmed Record….From Montgomery to Memphis, provided a three-hour biography of King. The film capitalized on the fact that King was one of the first public figures whose entire career had been documented on film. In a way, King… showed how the politician molded his image as he evolved from a small-town minister to national spokesman. King… condenses the “I Have a Dream” speech to eight minutes, with Landau and his crew forced to rely at times on scratched footage.

Watching the speech today shows how sophisticated politicians have become at defining an image. To best get his message across, King had to learn how to control the film or television frame. In his early appearances, he often seems just a face in the crowd. Even while delivering “I Have a Dream,” King is framed with irrelevant and at times distracting figures, including a policeman who adjusts a row of microphones and people in the background who are not always paying attention. In King…, editors John Carter and Lora Hays, assisted by Hank Greenberg, Steve Roberts and Jack Sholder, had to resort to several different film viewpoints in order to present the best available version of King’s oration.

King….A Filmed Record….From Montgomery to Memphis is available for purchase from its associate producer Richard Kaplan.

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