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.