op-ed

The forgotten influence on MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ speech

Jo Ann Skousen Contributor

“Looking down the vista of time I see an epoch in our nation’s history, not in my time or yours, but in the not distant future, when there shall be in the United States but one people, molded by the same culture, swayed by the same patriotic ideals, holding their citizenship in such high esteem that for another to share it is of itself to entitle him to fraternal regard; when men will be esteemed and honored for their character and talents.”

Does the sentiment expressed in these words sound familiar? Are they perhaps an early draft of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech? Good guess, but no. These words were written by Charles Waddell Chesnutt in 1905, more than half a century before Dr. King uttered his poetic and powerful prose on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Born in 1858, Charles W. Chesnutt witnessed the Civil War and lived through the reconstruction and racism that followed it. Both of his parents were considered black, although both had white ancestors. Photographs of Chesnutt reveal that he could easily have passed for white, as many mixed-race people did in those days. Chesnutt chose not to pass into that easier world, however. Instead, he embraced his black roots and wrote short stories about the complex issues of racial relationships. He was well respected in the literary community of his time, writing for The Atlantic Monthly and other mainstream publications. He was even invited to attend Mark Twain’s posh 70th birthday party.

Nevertheless, Chesnutt’s political sensibilities ran deep. He was an early civil rights activist and a founding member of the NAACP. The words quoted above are taken from an essay he wrote for the NAACP’s literary magazine, The Crisis, entitled “Race Prejudice, Its Causes and Its Cure.”

Like the man who would follow in his footsteps, Chesnutt did not believe in violent reprisals for the wrongs committed against African Americans. He wanted fair treatment, but without retaliation or reverse bigotry. Chesnutt and King both longed for a day when color simply would not matter. In that 1905 essay, Chesnutt continued:

“[I see an epoch] when hand in hand and heart with heart all the people of this nation will join to preserve to all and to each of them for all future time that ideal of human liberty which the fathers of the republic set out in the Declaration of Independence, which declared that ‘all men are created equal.'”

Similarly, King’s 1963 speech proclaimed: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'”

Interestingly, Dr. King’s heirs sued CBS for copyright infringement after CBS aired a segment of the speech as part of a civil rights documentary, claiming that the speech was a performance and thus was protected by common law copyright, even though Dr. King did not register the speech in advance with the Registrar of Copyrights. In 1999 the court ruled in the estate’s favor, giving King’s family the right to license the speech and receive royalties whenever it is copied, aired, published or performed. This copyright will remain in force until 70 years after Dr. King’s death (2038).

I am happy for Dr. King’s heirs. And on this day when the memorial to Dr. King is unveiled, I applaud and cheer the distance we have come toward seeing King’s dream become a reality, and Chesnutt’s vista move into the foreground. Sadly, however, to my knowledge none of them has ever acknowledged or credited the article Charles Chesnutt published in The Crisis all those years ago, even though its influence on the “I have a dream” speech can hardly be disputed. Today, let’s celebrate the contributions of both these great civil rights leaders.

Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature and writing at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and has served as entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which is presented in conjunction with FreedomFest in Las Vegas each July. She may be reached at jskousen@anthemfilmfestival.com.