BOOTLEG FILES 341: The “I Have a Dream” Speech (the landmark 1963 address by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).

LAST SEEN: Available in its entirety on a number of online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been excerpted in a number of documentaries, but it has never been released in its entirety as a standalone title.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The importance of the presentation has made it a prime target for unauthorized reproduction.


This week’s column takes on a very different subject. Instead of pursuing classic films or kooky TV shows, the focus is being placed on the video of the single greatest American speech of the 20th century: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial during the March of Washington on August 28, 1963.

Everyone is familiar with Dr. King’s famous forward-thinking prediction of a future United States where a new generation will come of age outside of the disfiguring imprisonment created by state-sanctioned racial discrimination. Today, Dr. King’s words are seen as prescient wisdom. For many people back in 1963, however, the notion of a future where “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” was a radical concept of unthinkable proportions.

Indeed, the entire March on Washington was an event without precedent for its time. Many people did not see a massive rally in the nation’s capital on the very touchy subject of civil rights in 1963 as a confirmation of American democracy. Not surprisingly, many of Dr. King’s opponents accused the civil rights leadership of being Communist stooges – after all, they reasoned, what kind of self-respecting American would openly criticize his country? The federal government vainly attempted to keep the rally’s size down by refusing weekend access to Lincoln Memorial – the March on Washington was held on a Wednesday, when most people would be required to be at work.

Of course, that strategy failed. Somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 people turned up in Washington. The program at the Lincoln Memorial included speeches by the nation’s leading civil rights figures and musical performances by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, and Peter, Paul and Mary. The cabaret legend Josephine Baker was invited to be a speaker (she was the only woman to address the rally), but not a performer.

The question of media coverage for the event posed a problem. The three major U.S. networks rarely interrupted their scheduled programming to offer nonstop, commercial-free coverage of an unfolding news event – let alone an event with a distinctive partisan message. The weekday scheduling of the event also clashed with the networks’ commercially profitable afternoon line-up of game shows and soap operas. Ultimately, CBS opted to break with precedent and offer live coverage of the Lincoln Memorial presentations. The other networks agreed to switch to event for Dr. King’s address, with CBS providing the pool coverage for the television newscasts.

While Dr. King’s brilliance as a public speaker was widely acknowledged, no one expected the innovative speech that he delivered at the Lincoln Memorial.  Dr. King certainly didn’t – the “I Have a Dream” section was not included in the prepared remarks that he assembled for the event. But even if that section were absent from the speech, his address would still resonate as the most articulation condemnation of racism ever put forth. Ironically, this part of the speech is usually absent from documentaries and history lessons, and I suspect that most people are unfamiliar with these remarks.

“And so, we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition,” he said. “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable rights’ of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Dr. King also made it very clear that racism was not unique to the former Confederate States of America. “We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities,” he stated. “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: ‘For Whites Only.’ We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”

The “I Have a Dream” section was added spontaneously while the speech was in progress. It was not an improvised addition – Dr. King presented a similar version to great response in a Detroit speech delivered on June 23, 1963. The rest, as they say, is history.

Almost immediately after it was delivered, the “I Have a Dream” speech was the subject of bootlegging. The first assault was an audio effort – the companies Mister Maestro Inc., and Twentieth Century Fox Records Company produced a record album of the speech and distributed it for sale. Unfortunately, the company’s never consulted with Dr. King, who had registered a copyright on the final text of the delivered speech. Dr. King successfully sued and the companies were forced to withdraw their album from sale.

The copyright protection on the speech has proven to be somewhat complicated. Under U.S. copyright laws, a fair use exception can be claimed only when portions of a public speech are republished under “bono fide new reporting.” This explains why most documentaries and news coverage relating to Dr. King’s speech provides the briefest of excerpts from the “I Have a Dream” section and not the full 16-minute speech.

During the 1990s, Dr. King’s estate successfully sued two major media entities that attempted to share the full speech with their respective audiences. In 1994, USA Today paid the King estate $10,000 in attorney’s fees and court costs plus a $1,700 licensing fee after publishing the full speech without permission. In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Eleventh Circuit ruled on the case Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc. (194 F.3d 1211 (11th Cir. 1999)), with the verdict that CBS could not include its video footage of the speech in a documentary video release since Dr. King’s address was not in the public domain. The network and the King estate settled their legal differences outside of the court.

Strangely, the King estate even sued independent documentary producer Henry Hampton, alleging the unauthorized use of Dr. King’s image and words in the landmark 1987 public television series “Eyes on the Prize.” Try to imagine a documentary on the civil rights campaign without any mention or picture of Dr. King!

However, the Internet and its army of video bootleggers changed the playing field. Today, the full speech is available for free (and unauthorized) online presentation on a number of web sites. Yes, it is a violation of copyright laws. But, hopefully, this rules-bending presentation can inspire future generations to go forward with a positive message. Really, if anything were deserving of being seen and heard, it would be Dr. King’s extraordinary call for justice and equality.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. I think in the 80’s MPI VIDEO released the full speech which I think was a licensed release…

  2. In fact, I’m surprised that the people managing Dr. King’s estate haven’t taken a positive step, instead of lawsuits and screams of theft. Why hasn’t the estate produced an authorized DVD of the speech and the entire event? Why not have some contemporary person of repute do a commentary track or additional commentary? (Yes, I’m thinking President Obama, but political stuff would get in the way of that. Maybe someone more solidly in the academic community.) Proceeds could go to the King historical sites and other notable causes. The only thing I can presume is that King’s heirs and the keepers of his legacy aren’t quite as pro-active as he was.

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