He Had a Dream, But His Speech Was Hardly Noticed

Given all the self-congratulation of the 50th anniversary celebration marking the historic significance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, you’d think its importance had been noted at the time, especially by the news media. Well, Jess Bravin has news for you.

From The Wall Street Journal [Aug. 27, 1963]

The day before King gave the speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington, a news story in The Wall Street Journal, taking its cue from “Negro leaders” themselves, “questioned whether the march would make an impact,” Bravin writes. And in its news report on the march, The Journal not only “didn’t mention” the speech, it “made no mention of Dr. King at all.” Besides, “the speeches were inaudible to many of those gathered on the Mall,” Bravin reports, and as The Journal’s Washington bureau chief reported at the time, the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins himself noted the speeches were “not too important in the proceedings anyway.”

As Bravin also reports, “The Journal wasn’t alone in missing the significance of the speech.” He cites a recent column in The Washington Post pointing out that it, too, “dramatically underplayed Dr. King’s address.” Underplayed is an understatement. How about ignored.

“On the day it was given,” Robert Kaiser, an associate editor of The Post, writes, “one of the most important speeches in U.S. history” barely made it into the news columns. The Post’s “1,300-word lead story, which began under a banner headline on the front page and summarized the events of the day, did not mention King’s name or his speech.”

Among “two dozen stories about the march,” Kaiser adds, “the words ‘I have a dream’ appeared in only one, a wrap-up of the day’s rhetoric on Page A15 — in the fifth paragraph. We also printed brief excerpts from the speeches, but the three paragraphs chosen from King’s speech did not include ‘I have a dream.'”

The statement that journalism is “the first rough draft of history,” widely but mistakenly credited to Phil Graham, the former Post publisher, needs to be revised. In this case, journalism never made it to a first draft, rough or otherwise.

Postscript: Here’s James Reston’s New York Times story about King’s speech (you’ll have to pay to read it), which Mark Stryker refers to in his comment. Only in baseball is one out of three a batting average to boast about.

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  1. Mark Stryker says

    Except the most important paper of record of them all, the New York Times (remember them), carried a separate story specifically about King’s speech on the front page that was written by the venerable James Reston under a large headline “I Have a Dream ….” with a subhead that said “Peroration by Dr. King Sums up A Day the Capitol Will Remember.” The piece is laudatory (it’s marked as “news analysis”) and includes lines like this: “‘I have a dream’ he cried again and again. And each time the dream was a promise out of our ancient articles of faith, phrases from the Constitution, lines frim great anthem of the nation, guarantees from the Bill of Rights,all ending with a vision that they might one day all come true.”

    Just because the Journal and Post missed it doesn’t mean everybody did. While a broad content evaluation of every newspaper and TV broadcast might be too much to ask, that Bravin didn’t bother to at least see what the Times did before making such sweeping generalizations is lazy.

    • says

      Actually, I’m the one who was lazy. To be charitable (as well as accurate), I didn’t have the time to check the Times. Frankly, I think Bravin may well have checked. But I have a feeling, although not substantiated by any reporting of my own, that the WSJ editors would not have appreciated any NYT reference in Bravin’s story, particularly when it would have been to the WSJ’s disadvantage.