About today’s guest writer: W. Jason Miller is professor of English at North Carolina State University. He is the author of Langston Hughes and American Lynching Culture, a book that investigates the nearly three dozen poems written by Hughes on the subject of lynching to explore its varying effects on survivors, victims, and accomplices. His newest book, Origins of the Dream: Hughes’s Poetry and King’s Rhetoric, is the first book to connect the work of Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King, Jr. In today’s author guest post, W. Jason Miller explains how Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Deferred”—along with the play that draws from it, A Raisin in the Sun—inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to start speaking about dreams.
“What I have now found and documented is that Hughes’s poetry hovers behind Martin Luther King’s sermons like watermarks on bonded paper.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. first spoke of “dreams” in a sermon he delivered on April 5, 1959. His subject that day was disappointment, not hope. The focus of his sermon came when he said: “Very few people are privileged to live life with all of their dreams realized and all of their hopes fulfilled. Who here this morning has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?” Though it doesn’t flash on first glance, King’s reference to unfulfilled and shattered dreams is actually an allusion to Langston Hughes’s famous poem “Dream Deferred” (first titled “Harlem” in 1951). This sermon became one of King’s most repeated and personal sermons, and on other occasions King made the connections to Hughes’s poem explicit: “I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes.”
My research into King’s use of Hughes’s poetry first began after discovering this surprising connection. What I have now found and documented is that Hughes’s poetry hovers behind Martin Luther King’s sermons like watermarks on bonded paper. When I held this 1959 sermon to the light, I found that the unparalleled success of A Raisin in the Sun, a play which was inspired by Hughes’s poetry, created the historical context for understanding this sermon.
Taking its title from the first image in Hughes’s poem (“What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”), the play debuted on March 19, 1959. It is hard to underestimate the cultural impact of the play A Raisin in the Sun. It ran on Broadway for 538 consecutive performances. Nominated for four Tony Awards, it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the year’s best drama. Unlike any play before it, the crowd was often half African American. Eleven days after Raisin’s Broadway debut, the New York Times reported that major film companies started bidding for the screen rights. The stipulation to use an all-black cast was accepted without hesitation. Leaping from Broadway to Hollywood in such a short time speaks to the cultural phenomenon that was A Raisin in the Sun. The New York Times summarized the entire play in one sentence: the play deals with “the shattered dreams of a Negro family.” Lorraine Hansberry’s play doesn’t merely use Hughes’s poetry in its title: her play is about shattered dreams. King himself read about all this as he was an avid reader of the New York Times where the play was covered in this fashion on no less than two dozen different articles throughout March of 1959.
Though King alluded to five of the six images Hughes uses in his famous poem “Dream Deferred” throughout many of his sermons and addresses before and after 1959, it was the play’s debut just three weeks before April 5th that explains this historic engagement. 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. In his sermon, King used the poem’s imagery, repeated questions, theme, and diction.
Why did King use an idea from Hughes’s poem as the central focus for his first sermon about dreams, and why is this connection important? King was enamored with poetry. Not only did he quote it from memory and rewrite poetic lines in his public addresses, I have even discovered that King’s earliest iterations of the phrase “I have a dream” were actually presented in the form of a poem. He also had previous (and remarkable) success with using several of Hughes’ other poems in his speeches. Moreover, Hughes had written a poem about King in 1956, and by the end of 1959 King would personally request and receive a poem by Langston Hughes to be used at a celebration for A. Philip Randolph. This poem not coincidentally also featured the subject of dreams which King himself picked up on in his own personal remarks at the event held at Carnegie Hall on January 24, 1960. Literary sources about failed dreams, not biblical prophecy, served as the origins of King’s engagement with the subject of dreams.
Langston Hughes would never be more popular than he was in 1959-60. In 1959, his Selected Poems was released, he won the NAACP’s highest lifetime achievement award in 1960, and he was so well-known that he was selling Smirnoff Vodka in Ebony Magazine which boasted a readership of over 650,000 subscribers. When the historic anthology American Negro Poetry was first released in 1963 (eventually running through an astounding 18 printings), Hughes’s poems duly received twice as much space as any other poet in the collection. Few realize that Hughes died in 1967, only a year before King’s assassination.
King’s 1959 sermon “Unfulfilled Hopes” marks the beginning of King’s engagement with the subject of dreams. What becomes most extraordinary about King’s use of Hughes’s poem is this: without the successes of the play and King’s intimate familiarity with Hughes’s poetry (buoyed through his wife Coretta’s vast collection and appreciation of Hughes’s works), Martin Luther King, Jr. would have never started speaking about dreams. And, to my own shock and amazement, Dr. King was personally revising this April 5, 1959 sermon for publication in late 1962. A handwritten draft shows that he paused and traced over the word “dreams” five to six times till it turned black-hard bold. At this same time (not in 1963 as most incorrectly believe) Dr. King first started using the phrase “I have a dream.” Gradually turning the negative aspects of dreaming into something truly inspiring and unifying, King found a creative way to synthesize prophecy, politics, and poetry into something unforgettable and truly his own.