No, Dave Chappelle, Bill Cosby Did Not Pay for Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ PA System

By
Image
Martin Luther King Jr. Photo: Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The Age of Spin, the first of Dave Chappelle’s two at-times brilliant new Netflix specials, builds to a closer about Bill Cosby and how he has a “valuable legacy” along with his history of alleged sexual abuses. Chappelle lists many things Cosby did for black Americans, all leading to the “kicker”: “Here’s the fact that I heard, but haven’t confirmed: I heard when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said he had a dream, he was speaking into a PA system that Bill Cosby paid for.” That would be incredible if it were true. It’s not.

Considering where Cosby was in his career at the time, the claim seems extremely unlikely. On August 28, 1963, when the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held — we couldn’t find any record of Cosby attending the March — Cosby was still a New York City nightclub act. A few weeks earlier, he had just made his first appearance on The Tonight Show (though Allan Sherman was guest-hosting, as Johnny Carson was out that night), and hadn’t yet released his debut record. This would be like if a comedian who was just about to tape their first Comedy Central special paid for the PA system at the Women’s March.

Somewhat ironically, Mark Whitaker, in his Cosby biography, Cosby: His Life and Times, suggests that it was King’s speech that helped make Cosby a star:

How significant was it that Bill Cosby’s emergence as a national celebrity took place in the autumn of 1963, in the months after King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech? Or that 1963 happened to be the year when a series of brutal setbacks for the civil rights movement rattled American’s conscience … Cosby never mentioned these events in his performances, and neither did the white TV hosts who competed to book him on their shows. But as the civil rights battle raged on, there was no question that a charming Negro comedian who got laughs without any reference to the ‘race problem’ was a comforting figure to Americans who wanted to show that they were capable of judging a man not by the color of his skin but the content of his comedy.

But the strongest evidence against Chappelle’s claim is that the fact of who paid for the March’s PA system is actually surprisingly well-documented. (This is partly because before the event, the system was sabotaged and the organizers called upon Attorney General Robert Kennedy to fix it. But that’s a story for a different day.) A few pages of Charles Euchner’s book about the March, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington, is dedicated to the fact. See, the quality of the PA system was a sticking point for Bayard Rustin, one of the events main organizers. “The Lincoln Memorial is here, the Washington Monument is there,” Rustin told the engineers. “I want one square mile where anyone can hear.” His explanation, “We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear.” It was part of his plan to transform “a crowd” into “an audience.” According to Euchner, most big events at the time would rent systems for around $1,000 to $2,000, but Rustin wanted to rent something much more expensive.

Here’s an excerpt of the next passage from the book:

Rustin called Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. “We expect you fellows to raise the money for a sound system — $20,000,” he remembers telling them. Then he called Jack Conway of the AFL-CIO and told him to make sure Reuther and Dubinsky delivered.

Over the years after the March, Cosby might’ve attended an event at which King spoke, but there is no proof of such, and no evidence of any direct relationship between the two. Cosby was very close with Harry Belafonte, who was very close with King. As Cosby started making money following his breakthrough role on I Spy and his comedy albums, though, it’s possible he donated money to King’s causes through their mutual friend. Belafonte was also the first person Cosby called when he heard that King had been shot. Also, it was with Belafonte, at King’s funeral, that Cosby helped comfort King’s children. (Here’s a photo.) “Bill Cosby spent a lot of time with the children, as opposed to going to comfort my mother,” Martin Luther King III told Rolling Stone. “He said he wanted to spend his time trying to help us deal with the crisis. And he did. I remember Bill telling us a formula to deal with the death. He made up three or four words, like a magic expression, and had us repeat it over and over.”

In June of that year, Cosby entertained protesters at the Poor People’s March on Washington, an event first conceived by Martin Luther King before his assassination, and carried out by Ralph Abernathy and Coretta Scott King. Also, that summer Cosby worked with Belafonte to organize a benefit at the Hollywood Bowl for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the organization of which MLK was the president before his passing).

Vulture reached out to Netflix and Dave Chappelle for comment, but they haven’t responded. That said, we understand that in comedy, facts are flexible — that when a comedian says something happened to him or her last week, they mean a week after whenever they wrote the joke. Chappelle, in particular, likes to test the limits of his audience’s belief. When he says in his second Netflix special, Deep in the Heart of Texas, that he received a VHS tape of him having sex in the mail, and then a week later he received a second tape of him masturbating to the first one, the audience gives him the benefit of the doubt, even though, on second thought, that’s obviously a joke. Like any fudging of details in comedy, Chappelle made this up because it captured his true feelings better than the truth. If Cosby had paid for the sound system through which MLK delivered his “I Had a Dream” speech, that would inspire a feeling comparable to how Chappelle felt about Cosby before the abuse allegations came out, considering Chappelle is a person who became a comedian after reading about Cosby in a magazine. So Chappelle said it.

No, Dave Chappelle, Cosby Didn’t Pay for MLK’s PA System