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How Langston Hughes’s Dreams Inspired MLK’s

Langston Hughes wrote about dreams at a time when racism meant that black people’s dreams were silenced

A 1925 pastel portrait of Hughes that belongs to the Smithsonian. (Winold Reiss, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of W. Tjark Reiss, in memory of his father, Winold Reiss)
smithsonian.com

“I have a dream.”

You’ve heard the line. But what you may not know is that the poetry of Langston Hughes, born on this day in 1902, influenced King’s sermons on a fundamental level and helped give rise to the preacher's most lasting line. Hughes, an accomplished poet, is remembered by many as one of the architects of the Harlem Renaissance and an important African American voice. He’s less remembered for his connection to the civil rights leader.

Hughes wrote a number of poems about dreams or dealing with the subject of dreams, but they weren't really positive poems — they were truthful reflections of the struggle he and other black Americans faced in a time of institutionalized and mainstream cultural racism. What happens to a dream deferred, he asked: sometimes it just becomes a "heavy load." Other times, it explodes. 

“Hughes’s poetry hovers behind Martin Luther King’s sermons like watermarks on bonded paper,” writes scholar W. Jason Miller in a post for The Florida Bookshelf.  

But, Miller writes, King was also influenced by others whose work reached back to the poet. One of the biggest cultural milestones that had happened just before Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his first speech about dreams was the debut of A Raisin in the Sun.

The play took its name from a line of Hughes’s famous poem, “A Dream Deferred (Harlem),” writes Miller. The poem was printed in full on the playbill, according to Michael Hoffman for The Florida Times-Union. After it premiered, Hoffman writes, King wrote to Hughes: “I can no longer count the number of times and places… in which I have read your poems.”

The play began its run on March 19, just a few weeks before King delivered his first sermon about dreams, on April 5. “Because King was obligated to preach about Palm Sunday, and then Easter on successive weeks, April 5 literally marked the first possible opportunity after the play’s premier for him to create and deliver a new sermon,” Miller writes. “In his sermon, King used the poem’s imagery, repeated questions, theme and diction.”

These kind of details demonstrate that King’s preoccupation with dreams—which manifested itself in speeches particularly from 1960 onwards,  according to one scholarly analysis—came from the literature of black oppression, Miller writes.

From this preoccupation came King’s most mainstream rallying cry, “I have a dream.” And it’s worth thinking about why King chose that word, rather than another. For instance, the April 5 sermon about dreams was actually titled “Unfulfilled Hopes” — if he’d kept running with that language, it’s possible his best-known line might have been “I have a hope.”

But by September 1960, according to Stanford University’s MLK encyclopedia entry, “King began giving speeches referring directly to the American Dream.” According to Brianne Trudeau, “one of the greatest issues that Hughes confronts in his poetry is the African American’s constant quest to attain the ‘American Dream,’ and throughout his poetry Hughes links attaining or losing this dream with the city of Harlem, the race capital of African America.”  

In another, less quoted if not less famous, missive, now titled “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King also wrote about dreams:

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious and remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serves as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.  

However, he concluded, there was still hope that the protestors would be seen as standing up for the “American Dream,” and that he could continue to build ties between religious leaders.

King’s letter is dated April 3, 1963. A few months later, he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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