Langston Hughes’ hidden influence on MLK

But during the most turbulent years of the civil rights movement, Dr. King never publicly uttered the poet’s name. Nor did the reverend overtly invoke the poet’s words.

You would think that King would be eager to do so; Hughes was one of the Harlem Renaissance’s leading poets, a master with words whose verses inspired millions of readers across the globe.

However, Hughes was also suspected of being a communist sympathizer. In March of 1953, he was even called to testify before Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare.

Meanwhile, King’s opponents were starting to make similar charges of communism against him and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, accusing the group of being a communist front. The red-baiting ended up serving as some of the most effective attacks against King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

It forced King to distance his organization from men with similar reputations – Bayard Rustin, Jack O’Dell and even his closest adviser, Stanley Levison.

It also meant he needed to sever any overt ties to Hughes.

But my research has found traces of Hughes’ poetry in King’s speeches and sermons. While King might not have been able to invoke Hughes’ name, he was nonetheless able to ensure that Hughes’ words would be broadcast to millions of Americans.

 

.. As the leading figure in the civil rights movement, King had to toe a delicate line. Because he needed to retain popular support – as well as be able to work with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – there could be no question about where he stood on the issue of communism.

So King needed to be shrewd about invoking Hughes’ poetry. Nonetheless, I’ve identified traces of no fewer than seven of Langston Hughes’ poems in King’s speeches and sermons.

 

.. But the roots of “I Have a Dream” go back even further. On Aug. 11, 1956, King delivered a speech titled “The Birth of a New Age.” Many King scholars consider this address – which talked about King’s vision for a new world – the thematic precursor to his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In this speech, I recognized what others had missed: King had subtly ended his speech by rewriting Langston Hughes’ “I Dream a World.”

    A world I dream where black or white,
    Whatever race you be, 
    Will share the bounties of the earth
    And every man is free.

How Langston Hughes’s Dreams Inspired MLK’s

Langston Hughes wrote about dreams at a time when racism meant that black people’s dreams were silenced

“I have a dream.”

You’ve heard the line. But what you may not know is that the poetry of Langston Hughes, born on this day in 1902, influenced King’s sermons on a fundamental level and helped give rise to the preacher’s most lasting line. Hughes, an accomplished poet, is remembered by many as one of the architects of the Harlem Renaissance and an important African American voice. He’s less remembered for his connection to the civil rights leader.

Hughes wrote a number of poems about dreams or dealing with the subject of dreams, but they weren’t really positive poems — they were truthful reflections of the struggle he and other black Americans faced in a time of institutionalized and mainstream cultural racism. What happens to a dream deferred, he asked: sometimes it just becomes a “heavy load.” Other times, it explodes.

But, Miller writes, King was also influenced by others whose work reached back to the poet. One of the biggest cultural milestones that had happened just before Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his first speech about dreams was the debut of A Raisin in the Sun.

The play took its name from a line of Hughes’s famous poem, “A Dream Deferred (Harlem),” writes Miller. The poem was printed in full on the playbill, according to Michael Hoffman for The Florida Times-Union. After it premiered, Hoffman writes, King wrote to Hughes: “I can no longer count the number of times and places… in which I have read your poems.”

The play began its run on March 19, just a few weeks before King delivered his first sermon about dreams, on April 5. “Because King was obligated to preach about Palm Sunday, and then Easter on successive weeks, April 5 literally marked the first possible opportunity after the play’s premier for him to create and deliver a new sermon,” Miller writes. “In his sermon, King used the poem’s imagery, repeated questions, theme and diction.”

These kind of details demonstrate that King’s preoccupation with dreams—which manifested itself in speeches particularly from 1960 onwards, according to one scholarly analysis—came from the literature of black oppression, Miller writes.

From this preoccupation came King’s most mainstream rallying cry, “I have a dream.” And it’s worth thinking about why King chose that word, rather than another. For instance, the April 5 sermon about dreams was actually titled “Unfulfilled Hopes” — if he’d kept running with that language, it’s possible his best-known line might have been “I have a hope.”

Martin Luther’s “I Have a Dream” was a line from Langston Hughes’s poetry

Ms. Tippett:He talked about how the prophets are always poets, and it’s with poetic language that they rise above the merely political and have something other than merely political impact. He says that the line we all remember of Martin Luther King is actually a line of poetry. “I have a dream” is actually a line of poetry.

Mr. Rampersad:Yes, a line of Langston Hughes’s poetry.

Ms. Tippett:Is it really? It’s a line of Langston Hughes’s poetry? I didn’t know that.

Mr. Rampersad:Well, I think Langston Hughes always believed that, because he had consistently invoked the motif of the dream in his poetry, in his civil rights poetry. So he always felt that Martin Luther King owed him one.

Ms. Tippett:I see.

Mr. Rampersad: Yeah. But that’s another story.

 

 

.. Ms. Alexander: Yes, I think of the Dr. Du Bois — that was always how he was referred to in my family. And I think that was very important because he was someone to be respected, that even though African Americans had attained higher education by the time I was a child, I know that I knew he was the first African American to get his PhD from Harvard University, that it was an extraordinary thing to have become educated in the way that he did, so that we ought to give him that title. And later on, I learned, there are a number of African-American elders of a generation for whom only the letters of their names are what we know. “W.E.B.” That was strategic, a way that he could not be called William or Bill, that someone would have to call him “boy” or call him Dr. Du Bois. It forced the issue of his stature. I think that that interested me a great deal. I remember learning that when I was probably a young teenager. I didn’t read The Souls of Black Folk until I was in college. I remember very much reading it for the first time, sophomore year with Professor Michael Cooke in a big survey course on African-American literature. It was a graduate course and, at that time, the only place that Du Bois was taught alongside Booker T. Washington and other greats of the tradition. I remember thinking, “Oh, not only is he a great man, he’s a beautiful writer” — and how that felt like such a gift that these important ideas came forward to us in language that was unforgettable.

 

 

Ms. Angelou: As one of the great thinkers. For a black man at that time, to teach and to learn and to study under those circumstances when people were being lynched, what Dr. Du Bois showed is that he had enormous courage. I would encourage young men and women, black and white and Asian and Spanish-speaking and all, to look at Dr. Du Bois and realize that courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can’t be consistently fair or kind or generous or forgiving — any of those — without courage.