Today is the 50th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream Speech” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And it’s also my birthday.
I was born in Atlanta and was baptized in a church across the street from Ebenezer Baptist church where MLK’s gravesite is located in the King Memorial. As a small boy, nearly every Sunday, I saw the eternal flame that resides there, and learned about how it signified the undying message of Dr. King and his era-defining speech.
I feel like he and his message have always been with me. His words, specifically that speech, are something of a personal mantra. In many ways, I feel I was born into the dream that Dr. King sewed into the American fabric, on that twenty-eighth day in August, standing before the Lincoln Memorial, addressing a crowd of people that would each remember where they were that particular day in 1963. He was scheduled to speak last. He was not the star of the march, many people didn’t know who he was. But his voice would come to not only define the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, but the Civil Rights movement. That speech became one of the high-water marks in American history.
Surprisingly, this was not always the case. Just a few years after he delivered it, racial violence and rioting across the country threatened to shred the social fabric of the nation King was laboring to weave together. The speech seemed antiquated, naïve to the realities of the day, and even Dr. King himself has moved in new directions, notably, he’d begun to criticize the Vietnam War. Then he was killed. After his assassination, his “I Have A Dream” speech, as it came to be known, was reconsidered. Soon, journalists and historians gave it the aura of a revered text, and it became what it is today, a stepping stone of American history. That amazing speech was almost forgotten. History’s funny that way. How it’s always being written and rewritten. Considered and reconsidered. Weighed and measured against the present moment.
On this fiftieth anniversary of the speech, let’s consider: What do his words mean for America today? How much closer are we to Dr. King’s dream?
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
This particular phrase “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” is the litmus test of the dream of equality Dr. King laid out in his speech. And in many ways, in terms of how we treat one another and how we assess the content of someone’s character, we are far more socially evolved than we were. The color of a person’s skin is less and less of a factor when it comes to the assessment of their character. By no means are we past the point where the color of someone’s skin isn’t a factor, but we are far past the societal restrictions that were present in the early ‘60s.
Unless you live in a cave you know America has a black president. Considering that the Voting Rights Act was passed into law two years after the “I Have A Dream Speech,” and that less than fifty years after that guarantee of voter protection for black Americans, we now have a black president, it’s incredible. As in, it’s hard to believe. Culturally, most of us have already had our “I can’t believe we have a black president” moments during the first election. But it’s no less remarkable when you consider it in the historical context. America has a black president! Also, the United States attorney general is black. And there’s a black Supreme Court justice, the Hon. Clarence Thomas (all jokes aside, he’s still a black man). In many ways, it seems Dr. King’s dream is so much closer to becoming true.
Then there’s Trayvon Martin. And there were all those images of Dr. Martin Luther King wearing a hoodie in support of the slain teenager. Seeing MLK in a hoodie really brought home the point of his dream deferred. Also one should reflect on the fact that a black teenage boy living in Oakland, California is just as likely to get shot as he is likely to go to college. And Oakland isn’t some isolated pocket of danger. This sort of violence takes place in cities all across the nation. Every day. These acts of violence persist, continuing to steal lives and interrupt the safety of black neighborhoods. The incarceration and rates of recidivism amongst young black males continues to leave lingering scars on black families and cyclically erodes the stability of the family unit. This is just a sample of the struggles of Black America.
And as Dr. King suggested we shouldn’t limit ourselves by color lines, these sorts of problems are happening in far too many communities across the country (and around the world) regardless of color. The single greatest common indicator of injustice in America (and around the world) doesn’t have a racial complexion, but an economic one. The poverty and unemployment rates are at levels that remain systemically problematic. In some ways, we have come so far, while in other ways we’ve lost ground, and seem to be sliding backwards, finding ourselves worse off than when Dr. King first gave his speech.
Interestingly, that speech was not the first time MLK used the line “I have a dream.” He’d uttered those same words a week earlier in Chicago, two months earlier in Detroit, and at other times in the year prior. The phrase didn’t appear anywhere in the text of the speech he’d written and prepared for that day. It was a bit of serendipity. He ad-libbed it on the spot. If you watch the video of the speech, at about 12:30 minutes, as he starts the “I have a dream” section of the speech, you’ll notice he no longer looks down to the prepared text, you see him feel the moment and engage with the crowd, using one of the great gifts of being a southern preacher he begins speaking totally extemporaneously.
As the eyewitnesses report it, Dr. King was prompted by the world famous gospel singer, his personal friend, Mahalia Jackson, when she called out, “Tell ‘em about the dream!” Few people, other than Dr. King, Ted Kennedy, and the speechwriter, Clarence B. Jones, who were all standing near the podium, heard her. But in that way that gospel singers do, she made herself heard and her reminder was like a spark that lit the torch that Dr. King held aloft and used to lead the people towards his dream of a shared future of equally enjoyed freedom for every son and daughter.
His words were religious in tone and temperament, but secular in their legal appeal. He demanded that the respected legal documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, granted all people “the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” And that dream is what we’re still working to achieve. We still must safeguard the freedoms and ensure justice for many, many more Americans. It’s our struggle to guarantee legal protections for all, just as Dr. King said, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Social justice was a big deal in my home growing up. My mother was a school-teaching hippie. My father was a black nationalist. As you might imagine, the story of the Civil Rights movement was always a very important part of the history of America they taught me. Consequently, I took Dr. King’s dream deeply to heart. I’ve lived my life according to his words and rooted it in the meaning of his famous dream. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not naïve about it. For instance, I see that we live in a world where Pres. Barack Obama can draw on the verbal tones and shadings of Dr. King to help him win an election and then lose that particular vocal signature once he’s elected. I see that it’s now a signifier than one can try on, how one can drape themselves in Dr. King the same way conservatives sometimes drape themselves in Ronald Reagan. And in that moment the man becomes a harmless symbol. But I still take great pride because, as shrewd a politician as Obama may be, he’s still our first black president. I don’t look past the achievement. As far as symbols go, that’s a lasting one.
I see how others like to get worked up about things like the recent cultural appropriations by Miley Cyrus. But I don’t think anyone needs to defend Black America from a former Disney child star. I think Black America will be fine. I’m far more excited about the Afropunk Fest that took place that same weekend in Brooklyn as the MTV VMAs. Afropunk is a festival/movement of young black people (and whomever else wishes to join) all living out and embodying Dr. King’s dream. They’re judging themselves and each other based “on the content of their character.” So let Miley twerk her little ass off. She’s just one cultural phenomenon. Meanwhile, Afropunk is a movement of people appropriating punk culture, which isn’t typically considered “black.” For decades, punk culture was “white.” But afropunks, seeking a place where they can be themselves as they wish to be, have taken it and made it their own. This is a good thing. It means we’re all equally appropriating from each other, just as Dr. King dreamed we would be.
Dr. King had a dream of the future. We have the reality. I imagine, if Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he’d easily see how far we’ve progressed, and how much further we have to go. While we pause to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his speech, let’s reflect on our many reasons to celebrate, to be proud, to rejoice at his dream, and then when we wake up tomorrow and open our eyes to a new day let’s continue our march forward so that some day soon, together, we’re “able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
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