Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Public Imagination

Friday, January 13, 2012


Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons frequently relied on improvisation - King drew on sources and references that were limited only by his imagination and memory. It’s a gift on full display in King's 'I Have A Dream' speech, but it also conflicts with the intellectual property laws that have been strenuously used by his estate since his death. OTM producer Jamie York speaks with Drew Hansen, Keith Miller, Michael Eric Dyson and Lewis Hyde about King, imagination and the consequences of limiting access to art and ideas.

Comments [10]

Jamie York from New York City

Thanks to everyone for the comments. The song that's playing at the end of the piece is a live version by Charles Mingus of 'A Prayer for Passive Resistance'.

Jan. 19 2012 05:03 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

While watching the American Experience program on Custer the other evening, I was reminded of my own 1978 pilgrimage to Greasy Grass on the Little Bighorn to honor the victors. In my own private ceremony in this very public space, the words of King's dream speech found their way into my prayer, much as an abandoned truck radio antenna became, with found rubber bands, an improvised bow and other found objects became an arrow and a trashed restaurant order ticket filled in for the "check marked insufficient funds". Then I felt girded for what I imagined would be a visit to the site's glorification of the "boy general", only to hear the voice of Chief Dan George doing the eminently fair narrative within. Some prayers are answered.

Jan. 19 2012 02:16 PM
Benjamin from Missoula, MT

Wonderful segment, and great comments! Anybody know the piece of music that's playing at the end?

Jan. 18 2012 10:03 PM
Marty-Ann Kerner from new york

thank you for an excellent program that looked at King from a new perspective. It was a new and interesting way to celebrate the day and his achievements

Jan. 18 2012 09:00 PM

Another great piece and interesting discussion. I wonder what will happen with the next generation of MLK descendants. I assume at some point it will just be some random lawyers running the finances of the estate unless it's handed over to a museum or some non-profit institution.

Jan. 17 2012 12:39 AM
Hank Davis, www.victorymusic.org from Victory Review, Seattle WA

How wonderful to hear Martin Luther King's speeches considered as ethnopoetic constructions! As a music journalist with a Folklore degree, I'm fascinated by how King composed the famous "I Have a Dream" speech during its performance, drawing on sermonizing materials that were "in the air" within his communities of thought and work. One of our nation's most honored speeches was cobbled together out of concepts and imagery gleaned from sources ranging from Thomas Jefferson to MLK's fellow preachers. And when King hesitated on the Lincoln Mall, doubtful that his written ending would rise to the occasion, there was Mahalia Jackson right behind him, urging Martin to "tell 'em about the dream." So he did, and the hundreds of thousands wept. It was as if she were encouraging a great jazz man to solo on a favorite theme. The seeming oxymoron "oral literature" applies perfectly to King's grasp of the preacher's art. Let the lawyers who negotiate his property rights for the King family catch up to MLK himself. He was a master at declaiming on his feet from the pulpit, and as we honor him for the truth of his message, we should delight in the actual nature of his verbal gift, and how his ability to improvise so eloquently made him preeminent within his preaching tradition.

My favorite passage is the remarks at the end by Prof. Lewis Hyde. Hyde was formerly director of creative writing at Harvard, and is now Luce Professor of Art and Politics at Kenyon College. His book Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership struck Powells Books as "a stirring defense of our cultural commons, that vast store of art and ideas we have inherited from the past and continue to enrich in the present."

Jan. 15 2012 11:44 PM
Dale from New York

Respectfully, Jamie York, who should know better, gets a central tenet of this story on MLK's legacy wrong by not seeking out enough Trademark experts (or even one) to provide an opinion at odds with his own. As a result, the concluding note of this piece is not only off-base but egregiously inaccurate.

The King Family is indeed totally right in protecting MLK's speeches, videos, writings, recordings, and his legacy with steep fees and with binding legal trademarks.

If not for the steep fees tied to using King's image and the legal protections they have fought to maintain, there would be no way for the King Family to protect MLK's image from being used grotesquely, the way Fred Astaire was digitally resurrected to dance with Dirt Devil's cordless "Broom Vac" in 1997. Some -- or York himself -- might argue that the King Family has recently sold MLK's likeness to Chevrolet this very week. Fair enough but the point remains that they still control licensing and can decide for themselves if a Madison Ave. suitor passes muster. Chevrolet is sponsoring the MLK Reading Project, by the way.

But all that aside the more important reason the King Family should maintain control of MLK's likeness, writing, publishing, and other rights -- and the thing that York totally overlooks -- is that without that control, anyone in Hollywood could come along and make an unauthorized movie about King's life that in the best case is quiet and respectful and gets everything right and wins Academy Awards but that does not compensate the Family at all, despite earning $100-$200 million at the worldwide box office or at worst, gets everything factually wrong and turns out like the grotesque eight-hour miniseries "The Kennedys" staring Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy (!) and which presents an inaccurate representation of historical events.

Even the most tastefully-rendered Miramax interpretation that was a critical and popular success would likely cut the King Family out of the proceeds if his writings were in the public domain. Don't believe it? Talk to the family of African composer Solomon Linda who died penniless in 1962 even though he actually wrote "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," and which courts ruled was NOT a traditional folk song that should be in the public domain to be used by anyone.

Where York falls down in his reporting is not looking into the issue further and essentially "second-sourcing" to find an opinion other than his own and then taking the last word for himself and presenting the naive and just flat-wrong idea that the world would be such a better place if only King's words and works were available to be used, reframed, mashed up, and presented by anyone. It is a broader failing of OTM the show not to present the significant real-world legal issues at stake (outlined above) that are at odds with what is a very unsophisticated central premise.

Jan. 15 2012 04:52 PM

In light of the fact that the Dream speach is copyrighted - and that as stated in the piece this caused problems during the production of Eyes on the Prize because the required fees were too high - I was wondering if OTM had to pay to use it for this segment. Or does it now fall under some other regulation?


Jan. 15 2012 11:38 AM
Dennis Maher from Lake Luzerne NY

This was a fine analysis of King's sermons. A comment was made on the show about how preachers would borrow from each other, so that quotations from Shakespeare appear in sermons from different preachers. I was a preacher for 38 years, and can tell you that often they were borrowing not from other preachers per se, but from the first edition of Cokesbury's 12 vol. "Interpreters' Bible" published in 1954. Each page had text from the King James and RSV Bible at the top, scholarly exegesis in the middle, and application in the form of sermons at the bottom. These books were widely used by mainline Protestant preachers in the '50's and '60's and even the '70's. When in seminary I heard a number of sermons that I knew referenced this commentary. If you heard a classical reference in a sermon, you could be pretty sure that it was from these commentaries. They were quite influential for King's generation of preachers.

Jan. 15 2012 11:07 AM
Catherine Robson from New York City

Excellent piece on MLK Jr's oratorical technique and virtuosity -- I thought it made the important point that we all draw on the words and ideas of others when we compose our "own" speeches without in any way suggesting that this diminishes King's achievement. And the closing reference to the concept of "dividuality" was very interesting!

Jan. 14 2012 08:04 AM

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