Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
BERNARD K. DUFFY
RICHARD D. BESEL
California Polytechnic State University
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream”
and the Politics of Cultural Memory: An Apostil
In 1998, an Atlanta Federal District Court judge ruled that Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was part of national history and that CBS did not need to seek permission to air it in an historical documentary that included a segment on the civil rights movement. The documentary, broadcast in 1994, incorporated a nine-minute excerpt of King’s historic speech. The King Corporation lawyers in the case argued that CBS had unlawfully used King’s “eloquent, creative, literary expressions.” Arguing the decision before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the King family succeeded in having it overturned two years later. Although the decision was the first to legally cement the King family’s rights, this was not the first time the copyright had become an issue, nor would it be the last. Presciently, King had copyrighted the speech a month after it was delivered and his heirs clung tenaciously to the idea that it was a bequest to them (Stout 16). Clarence Jones, King’s lawyer and confidant, filed suit against Twentieth Century Fox Records and Mr. Maestro Records for issuing bootleg copies of the speech (Branch 886). However, King granted Motown Records permission to release two recordings of his speeches (“Great March to Freedom” and “Great March to Washington”), but told Motown founder Berry Gordy that he wanted the entire proceeds to be donated to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). When Gordy urged King to keep half of the royalties for himself and his family, King insisted it go to the SCLC so as not to give the impression that he was benefitting from the cause of civil rights (Posner 175–76). King’s family, like Gordy, has seen the speech as an important source of revenue, some of which undoubtedly has been used to promote King’s legacy. Since winning their appeal against CBS, the King family has continued to exploit the copyright of the speech, agreeing to sell the French telephone company Alcatel the right to use a digitally altered version of the event for a 2001 television commercial. The commercial 184
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shows King speaking jarringly absent the 250,000 people who had on that day lined the reflecting pool on the national mall. The commercial asks what would have happened if King’s words had not been able to “connect” with his audience (Szegedy-Maszak 20).
Selling a permission to use the speech for a television commercial and engaging in legal wrangling about the news media’s right to rebroadcast the speech are not developments that could be predicted from the iconic status the speech has achieved in national history. Although the legal dimensions of the speech’s dissemination are of interest, we are primarily interested in how King’s speech has become a permanent fixture in the collective memory of American citizens despite the copyright controversy. In a recent book on the speech, Drew Hansen suggests that it is “the oratorical equivalent of the Declaration of Independence” (The Dream 214). What Edwin Black said of the Gettysburg Address is equally true of “I Have a Dream”: “The speech is fixed now in the history of a people” (Black 21). Far more than an ordinary written or performed text, King’s speech is now viewed as a text belonging to the nation, despite its current legal status. Coretta Scott King suggested that when King delivered the speech he was “connected to a higher power” (King). Whether or not divinely inspired, the speech has come to symbolize the civil rights movement and anchors collective public memory of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Equality and of King...