Fifty years after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, last week provided numerous occasions to commemorate the exalted civil rights event—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s clarion call for freedom—and ongoing efforts to realize social equality. Despite a surplus of media coverage, audiences overwhelmingly encountered only abbreviated broadcasts of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech due to its copyright protection.
Less than two months after delivering the address, King submitted a copy of it to the United States Copyright Office. The speech was classified as a “work not reproduced for sale”—an unpublished work. After registering the copyright, King successfully enjoined two media publishers from distributing phonographic reproductions of the March on Washington address.
Since King’s death in 1968, his estate has continued to strictly control use of the speech, most notably prevailing against the commercial broadcaster CBS in 1999. Prior to reaching an undisclosed settlement, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the speech was not a “general publication” under common copyright law despite the size of the original 1963 audience and subsequent historic value.
Historians and civil rights leaders have admonished the King estate for restricting access to the speech. Many opponents note that both the rhetorical content and King’s oratory prowess contributed to its longstanding historical importance. These opponents contend that disallowing public access to the speech contravenes not only the March’s command for economic freedom, but also King’s longstanding desire to rehabilitate humanity from violent social class conflict.
The absence of the “I Have a Dream” speech from the public domain is especially glaring when juxtaposed with the efforts of citizen photojournalists tracking contemporary social justice movements. Just one week prior to the 50th anniversary of the Great March on Washington, BuzzFeed published a near–real-time account of impromptu civil disobedience carried out by activists from United We Dream, a movement of undocumented immigrant youth (DREAMers). Recognized for photo-heavy slideshows, BuzzFeed published images of peaceful, honest protest moments reminiscent of the cordiality characterizing the March.
As the DREAMers held a strategic candlelight vigil outside an Arizona detention center, a bus carrying detained immigrants attempted to exit the facility. The activists stopped the bus from leaving by placing themselves in front of it and praying. Eventually the bus retreated into the detention facility, and it presumably was unable to carry those immigrants to deportation that evening.
A contemporary racial justice battle line has been drawn at the United States-Mexico border. Immigration reform activists continue to pressure legislatures and executives by directing public attention toward emotionally and physical harmful consequences of immigration laws. Lizbeth Mateo, a DREAMer detained alongside eight other immigrant-activists for 17 days in Arizona, explained, “We are giving President Obama a chance to do the right thing. They always say, ‘Why don’t you come here legally?’ Well this is his chance to create the legal process.” The DREAMers seem to be honoring the 50-year-legacy of the March by championing equal treatment under the law through emotionally enthralling but non-violent demonstrations.
The “I Have a Dream” speech occupies an intersection of intellectual property and national history. But today’s activists utilize social media and other outlets unique to this technological age to get their message out. Rather than orchestrating their “Dream” for one public moment, DREAMers and related activists today continue to make noise in an echo-prone public domain.