Martin Luther King's Dream at 60
from The Nation online-- August 28, 2023
Sixty years ago today, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered perhaps the most celebrated speech in modern American history. The date was August 28, 1963, the occasion the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the place the Lincoln Memorial. We remember the speech largely for its memorable metaphors—"the whirlwinds of revolt," "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism"—and the urgency of King's "dream" of a future America that had moved beyond the tyranny of race. King achieved a delicate balance between hope and despair, between anger at the Black condition and reassurance to other Americans that they had nothing to fear from the civil rights movement. All Americans would benefit from the dismantling of the decades-old structures of Jim Crow.
It is easy to forget how thoroughly American King's "I Have a Dream" speech was. He wrapped himself, and the movement he had come to personify, in the mantle of core American values discernible in the most cherished documents of the national experience. In a little over 1,500 words, he managed to invoke the Emancipation Proclamation, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the patriotic song "America," interspersed with the language and cadences of the Bible. When he first used the words "I have a dream," he immediately added that it was "deeply rooted in the American dream." It would be difficult to make the civil rights movement less threatening to white fellow citizens. King managed to make his call for a radical restructuring of American life familiar, indeed almost conservative.
King's speech built on a tradition dating back to the American Revolution, when Black critics of the racial order chastised the country for not living up to its professed ideals, while at the same time claiming those ideals as their own. During the struggle for independence, Black petitioners cited the ideology of liberty to demand their own freedom. In pamphlets, sermons, and manifestos they insisted that, as one petition put it, "every principle from which America has acted" demanded the abolition of slavery. In the pre–Civil War decades, Black abolitionists and their white allies seized on Jefferson's timeless pronouncement that "all men are created equal" as a weapon for abolition. Gatherings of free African Americans called themselves "conventions of colored citizens," claiming a status enjoyed by white Americans but which the federal government denied to them. If white Americans could claim citizenship by birthright, the same principle should extend to African Americans born in the United States.
Perhaps the most striking instance of condemning national hypocrisy while claiming the benefits of liberty was Frederick Douglass's 1852 speech "The Meaning of the Fourth of July to the Negro." Douglass excoriated Americans who celebrated Independence Day while subjecting millions of their countrymen to bondage. Yet he did not repudiate the founders or their handiwork. Far from it: Douglass laid claim to the founders' legacy. They were "brave men," he declared, "great men," and the Constitution they had fashioned was "a glorious liberty document" that, properly interpreted, would bring an end to slavery. Indeed, Douglass implied, since the Declaration of Independence identified liberty as a universal entitlement of mankind, Blacks—whether free or enslaved—who rejected the idea that liberty could be confined to one race were the real inheritors of the American Revolution.
King's "I Have a Dream" speech utilized some of the same rhetorical strategies. Like Douglass, King insisted that the nation had tragically strayed from the principles bequeathed by the founders. King emphasized that (like abolitionism) the movement for racial justice was itself interracial. He noted that many whites had participated in civil rights demonstrations, sometimes suffering imprisonment or worse, and had traveled to Washington for this occasion. Along with calls for enactment of the Civil Rights Bill then languishing in Congress, the marchers' demands included a massive public spending program—-the jobs and freedom of the March on Washington's title—that would benefit Americans of all races: "their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom." The march itself had been jointly organized by religious groups, civil rights organizations, and liberal labor unions. Black equality was not a threat to whites.
King also sought to allay widespread fears that the march would result in violence. He urged Blacks to conduct their struggle "on the high plane of dignity and discipline" and explicitly rejected "distrust of all white people." Yet, despite his uplifting tone, King did not eschew sharp, even angry language. Just as Douglass had accused the nation of "crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages" and delineated the horrors of slavery, King spoke of "the unspeakable horrors of police brutality," language that may surprise those who encounter the speech today knowing only the words "I have a dream." Today, we remember the language that embodied hope—King's dream—but not his description of the stark realities of Black life. At one point King seemed to abandon reassurance in favor of a not-so-veiled threat: "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights."
Given the iconic status the "I Have a Dream" speech has achieved, it is perhaps not surprising that sentences and phrases has been wrenched from historical context to meet current political purposes. King's invocation of a future where his four children would "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" has become a shibboleth among conservatives, deployed as evidence that King was an opponent of what came to be called affirmative action. In fact, in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here? (1967), King wrote: "A society that has done something against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him." Like the "I Have a Dream" speech, the book was a plea for racial justice, not "color-blindness."
In effect, 60 years ago King was asking white Americans to decide whether they wished to align themselves with resistance, often violent, to social change—or act in accord with constitutional principles. In many ways, the same choice confronts us today.