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Civil Rights March turns 50 today

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The Rural Blog

Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, remembered most for the "I have a Dream" speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated less than five years later, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Why does the speech "exert such a potent hold on people around the world and across the generations?" asks Michoko Kakutani of The New York Times.

Kakutani, a Times literary reviewer, answers: "Part of its resonance resides in Dr. King’s moral imagination. Part of it resides in his masterly oratory and gift for connecting with his audience — be they on the Mall that day in the sun or watching the speech on television or, decades later, viewing it online. And part of it resides in his ability, developed over a lifetime, to convey the urgency of his arguments through language richly layered with biblical and historical meanings.

"The son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist ministers, Dr. King was comfortable with the black church’s oral tradition, and he knew how to read his audience and react to it; he would often work jazzlike improvisations around favorite sermonic riffs — like the 'dream' sequence — cutting and pasting his own words and those of others. At the same time, the sonorous cadences and ringing, metaphor-rich language of the King James Bible came instinctively to him. Quotations from the Bible, along with its vivid imagery, suffused his writings, and he used them to put the sufferings of African-Americans in the context of Scripture — to give black audience members encouragement and hope, and white ones a visceral sense of identification."

Though the speech is the focus of coverage of the anniversary, you won't be reading it in newspapers or seeing it on TV outlets this week, unless they paid for it, because King copyrighted it and his family "has been aggressively litigious" in defending the copyright, Ezra Klein notes in his Wonkbook for The Washington Post.

"The work won’t enter the public domain until 2038 which means, until then, the only way to legally use it is to pay up," Klein writes. "But that’s not the only way to read it. The National Archives — who I assume have figured out the copyright issues — have a version you can read. So go do that." The speech is available on YouTube.

Michael Fletcher of the Post reports, "Even as racial barriers have tumbled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963. When it comes to household income and wealth, the gaps between blacks and whites have widened. On other measures, the gaps are roughly the same as they were four decades ago. The poverty rate for blacks, for instance, continues to be about three times that of whites."