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‘I have a dream’ speech and a banned lecture

27 September 2013


From the Rt Revd John Dudley Davies

Sir, - The Church Times recently noted the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, at which Dr Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech, often called "I have a dream" (Comment, 23 August). Some of us may have wondered why so little of the actual speech was presented in the celebration broadcast on the BBC.

Fifty years ago, Dr King was a very significant figure to us in South Africa. It was a depressing time; Mandela and his colleagues were in prison. The ANC and other Congress bodies were banned. Leaders such as Bishop Ambrose Reeves had been deported. The traditionally "open" universities, such as the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where I was a chaplain, had been virtually silenced. But Dr King was a black man with a powerful voice, speaking to the world, speaking to our situation.

The apartheid government saw him as a dangerous communist, and made it a criminal offence to quote him or publish him. But Dr King did his best to keep in touch. Like the leaders of the African National Congress, he had been deeply influenced by Gandhi, who had originally developed his philosophy of non-violence in South Africa. Our Students' Representative Council invited Dr King to come to give our annual Academic Freedom lecture. Everybody knew that he would not be allowed into the country to do this, but it was a public gesture of recognition.

Dr King had an English friend and colleague, a priest who had worked with him in the United States and in Geneva. This was Edward Crowther, who had moved to work in South Africa and had become Bishop of Kimberley & Kuruman. In response to our University's invitation, Dr King gave Bishop Crowther a tape of a lecture that he had given, in which he developed both his vision of the part to be played by the Church in relation to an unjust society, and also his rationale of non-violence. If we couldn't have him, we could have his voice.

The Bishop passed the tape to a group of us in Johannesburg. We made about 1000 copies of it on LPs; through a network of colleagues, we got these distributed across the country over one weekend. Although, of course, the speaker's name was not stated on the label, the record was quickly banned. But at least it had made Dr King's voice audible in our country.

I still have one of these records, and have often played it and lent it to other people. Because of the recent anniversary, I planned to invite people to hear it now. I mentioned this to our local BBC radio station. They would have liked to include some of the lecture in a broadcast. But then rigid and expensive conditions of copyright emerged. Eventually, they got permission to broadcast an excerpt, on strict orders that this should not last longer than 60 seconds - 60 seconds of a speech that promoted freedom and resistance to oppression!

I think that I see why, in the anniversary broadcast, the "I have a dream" speech was represented by a collection of snippets.

Dr Martin Luther King is part of world history; his voice should surely belong to the world. Faced with the obstacles created by a cruel and oppressive regime 45 years ago, some us, in a small way, risked our liberty to make his voice heard. Nowadays, his voice has to overcome the obstacles of commercial profit. Evil ideology has been replaced by the financial opportunism. The ideology, mercifully, no longer rules; but commercial advantage is on its throne.

What would Dr King have to say about that?

Nyddfa, By Pass Road
Gobowen SY11 3NG

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