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Maine newspaper apologizes for running a redacted version of 'I Have a Dream' speech

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. On Monday, his daughter Bernice King said, "My father's 'dream' wasn't palpable to the white masses, including politicians."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. On Monday, his daughter Bernice King said, "My father's 'dream' wasn't palpable to the white masses, including politicians."

A Maine newspaper has apologized for publishing a heavily redacted version of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on Sunday, after a deluge of backlash from readers, on social media, and even a cable news show host criticized the paper for whitewashing the Black civil rights leader's legacy on what would have been his 94th birthday.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board has run the edited speech on and off since 2011. While some readers condemned the paper for omitting the parts of the speech that explicitly address the links between systemic racism and poverty, this is the first year the paper says it has been the target of such impassioned anger.

"For years, we have published the same editorial on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Typically, this abridged version of one of the great pieces of American oratory, King's 1963 'I Have a Dream' speech, receives little fanfare. That was not the case this year," the editorial board said on Tuesday.

After some introspection, and a conversation with an unnamed Portland city council member who expressed their own dismay, the board said it has seen the error of its ways. It explained that the paper often recycles editorials on holidays when readership tends to be low and that the entirety of King's speech is simply too long to print in full. "The thinking has been that an abridged version was a way to honor King's legacy."

The board continued: "It is clear that this institutional stagnation was a mistake on our part and that our thinking needs to be revisited, especially in light of recent efforts to erase some of the more controversial aspects of American history."

But the board did not offer an explanation as to why the original author or authors of the piece stripped the sections of the speech that directly addressed the violence of racial suppression and white supremacy at the time — sections that illustrate the radical and leftist views that made King such a controversial figure.

Among the parts that were excised over the last decade are roughly five paragraphs in which King spoke about America giving "the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' " It also includes the section in which King touched on "the unspeakable horrors of police brutality," and the degrading Jim Crow laws of the South as well as the complicity of the North.

In another edit, the board removed the phrase, "vicious racists" from the following sentence, and changed "down in Alabama" to "the state of Alabama": "I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of 'interposition' and 'nullification' — one day right there in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

King was considered divisive in the 1960s

Historian and professor Kevin Kruse was among those who lambasted the paper for running the cut-down speech that he said presents a "sanitized and sterilized" version of the Black leader, while the paper also prefaced it with a message calling on readers to "take a step away from our divisive politics and recall his defining speech." Kruse on Twitter posted an image of the paper's 1963 editorial about the march in Washington. The editorial called for an end to all civil rights marches. Kruse noted that King was considered divisive at the time.

King's own daughter, Bernice King, on Monday also tweeted about the controversy surrounding her father during his lifetime.

"My father's 'dream' wasn't palpable to the white masses, including politicians," she wrote in a post. "He challenged militarism and sought to eradicate it. He worked to end poverty, as caused by extreme capitalism and materialism. We need to know the authentic King...The Inconvenient King."

On Tuesday the Bangor Daily News editorial board noted that during the summer of 2020, when protests over the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer swept the nation, the paper "turned to King's 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail' to help understand the protests and national debate after police murdered George Floyd in Minnesota, and to reflect on how little many things have changed in the last 60 years."

In revisiting King's criticisms about white moderates and their "appalling silence," the editorial board acknowledged, "We also are literally white moderates, racially and often politically. But we don't want to be those white moderates King described, and we strive not to be when writing about racial inequality in Maine and across the country."

The board ended the apology saying, "Today, for us, doing right means admitting we were wrong to simply reprint an old editorial, and pledging to continue our work of being a voice for equality, freedom and justice."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.