On August 28, 1963, civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stands at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and delivers his famous “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In Elvis Day By Day, Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen note, “Dr. King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech is one of Elvis’ favorite rhetorical pieces, something he recites often over the years” (p. 239).
At the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, King is silenced by an assassin’s bullet at the age of 39.
Longtime Elvis friend Jerry Schilling describes the singer’s reaction to King’s death when they see the news:
“I’d heard him recite [King's] beautiful, hopeful words many times. I looked over at Elvis now and saw that he was staring hard at the TV. There were tears in his eyes. ‘He always spoke the truth,’ he said quietly” (Me And A Guy Named Elvis, p. 187).
Elvis is in Hollywood finishing up his 28th movie, Live A Little, Love A Little, and is devastated that the murder took place in his hometown. He also believes it will confirm “everyone’s worst feelings about the South” (Careless Love, Guralnick, p. 297).
Actress Celeste Yarnall, who had a small role in Live A Little, Love A Little, states that she watched King’s funeral on TV with Elvis and held him in her arms as he cried (The Elvis Encyclopedia, Victor, p. 289).
Only nine weeks later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles while running for President. This time, Elvis is in nearby Burbank – less than ten miles away. Rehearsals have begun for his ELVIS television special.
A few days later, W. Earl Brown writes “If I Can Dream” for Elvis to close the show. The song can be interpreted as a tribute to both fallen leaders, particularly King. “If I can dream of a better land, where all my brothers walk hand-in-hand, tell me why can’t my dream come true?” pleads Elvis in the song, echoing King’s 1963 speech.
It is a huge departure for Elvis, who has thus far avoided public commentary on social issues. His manager even tries to nix the song, but in a rare moment of defiance, Elvis insists on recording it.
NBC airs the ELVIS special on December 3, 1968, and it becomes the highest-rated program of the week and one of the most-watched specials of the year. “If I Can Dream” turns out not only to be the perfect song to close the special, but also an appropriate way to reflect on a tragic chapter in American history.
Martin Luther King, Jr., would have turned 84 on January 15. Today, the United States observes this hero’s birthday with a national holiday. His words, his ideas, his dreams live on.