50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's 'I Have A Dream' speech: Where have the great American orators gone?

In 1963 inspired speeches regularly echoed around the world – and changed it. Today, statesmen mouth slick platitudes that are no sooner spoken than forgotten. Andy McSmith reflects on a golden age of political oratory

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One of Barack Obama’s symbolic engagements during his recent trip to Europe was a visit to Berlin to pay tribute to an extraordinary speech delivered there, 50 years ago next week.

Yet the electrifying impact of John F Kennedy’s words, “Ich bin ein Berliner”, delivered on 26 June 1963, which turned the listening crowd wild with excitement, would be all but impossible for any political leader to replicate today.

That was a good year for American oratory. On 28 August, two months after Kennedy’s Berlin speech, Martin Luther King made what has been singled out as the finest example of political oratory ever delivered by an American. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he told the 200,000-strong crowd who had marched on Washington in protest at the absence of civil rights for blacks in the American south. “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” The phrase “I have a dream…” was repeated over and over.

King’s rival, Malcolm X, was a divisive figure, but beyond doubt he too could hold and inspire an audience. His riposte to “I Have a Dream” was his “Message to the Grassroots”, delivered in Detroit on 10 November 1963. It was a masterclass in oratory, whether or not you like the content. His message was that it would require a violent revolution for black Americans to free themselves. “We have a common enemy. Once we all see that we can come together as one. And what we have foremost in common is that enemy, the white man,” he said.

Politicians do not make political speeches with that kind of punch any more. This is probably not because they cannot do so; it is because the times do not call for such speeches.

Changing technology has played a part in removing the drama from public speaking. A modern communicator does not need a voice so powerful that it can carry across a huge hall. Ronald Reagan was one of the first to notice that he could speak conversationally and let the microphones do the work.

However, if that were the only reason why oratory ain’t what it used to be, it should be possible to trawl through the speeches delivered by British politicians in 1963 to find one of similar quality to “I Have a Dream”. The biggest political speech of that year delivered from a rostrum in the UK was probably Harold Wilson’s address to the annual Labour Party conference, commonly known as the “white heat of the technological revolution” speech. Wilson did not quite say that, but he did promise a “scientific revolution” and a “Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution”. It was a clever turn of phrase that helped Labour win the following year’s general election, but nothing more. Wilson was a master speaker and phrasemaker, but nothing that he said resonates down the years.

You could say much the same about a more recent Labour leader, Tony Blair . Blair was a fine public speaker, surrounded by talented and highly professional advisers and speechwriters, who were very proud of, for example, the speech they collectively put together for the leader to deliver to the 1999 party conference.

The speech was constructed around a promise to defeat the “forces of conservatism”. It was expertly crafted and delivered – yet hardly anyone now remembers it at all, and those who do are unlikely to remember what those “forces of conservatism” were.

To lift a political speech above the ordinary and give it the power to stick in the collective memory requires more than well-written phrases delivered by a skilled speaker. What matters equally, or perhaps more, is the political setting. History’s greatest speeches were delivered against the backdrop of conflicts which required people to take sides, and in which the speaker staked out a position clearly and graphically. And from a historical perspective, what the speech promises has to come true. We would cringe at the memory of Winston Churchill vowing to “fight them on the beaches” if all he had done subsequently was to surrender on the beaches.

In 1963, it was an open question whether America’s civil rights movement could ever break the hold of white supremacists in the south. King was arrested; dogs and fire hoses were turned on peaceful demonstrators; the civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered, and although everyone knew who the killer was, no southern jury would convict a white man of murder when the victim was black.

That was the context of King’s speech. And with that mantra, “I have a dream”, King was telling the movement not to lose faith. A year later, the United States had a southerner as President, in Lyndon Johnson, who rammed the first Civil Rights Act through an obdurate Senate.

Berlin in 1963 was a uniquely divided city. Half was an outpost of Western democracy, hemmed in by the Berlin Wall and surrounded by Communist East Germany. Its inhabitants had reason to be nervous that the Western powers might decide that the cost of maintaining and defending this oasis inside the Communist empire was too high, and would let it go.

Hence the electrifying impact of seeing the US president in their midst, and hearing him declare in ringing language that he personally identified with their cause. Though Kennedy would be dead within five months (his death marked by Lyndon B Johnson with another fine piece of political oratory), the US government indeed did stand by West Berlin for the next 26 years, until the wall fell.

Fifty years on, it is appropriate to look back on the great American orators of 1963, and to admire what they achieved. Yet the passing of the age of political oratory is not necessarily a cause for regret. For all the troubles in today’s world, it is less menacing and less racially divided.

If there are no great political speeches being delivered now that will be remembered through the ages, perhaps it is because there are no great causes to inspire them. And that may be fortunate for us.