Fifty years ago today, a group of about 250,000 people attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an all-day event that culminated with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering one of the iconic speeches in US history — the “I Have A Dream” speech.
If you have never seen the speech in its entirety, please take 17 minutes some time in the next few days and watch the whole thing — when you do watch, notice that at the 12:21 mark, he leaves his script behind, and delivers the “I Have a Dream” portion by heart. Dr. King had delivered elements of the “dream” in other locations, but never quite so eloquently and certainly never before on such a large stage.
Dr. King’s speech is arguably most famous for this line:
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.
Dr. King helped lead a movement that made people question the way they had been acting, and whether scenes such as this iconic one below, were just:
Sadly, in our shorthand world, Dr. King is often seen just as a pacifistic hero — “the man with the dream” — and is not viewed as any sort of threat. After all, who can argue with a man who had a dream that everyone would be treated equal?
But there’s far more to the text of Dr. King’s speech than that one line. And there’s far more to Dr. King’s career than that one speech. We need the time to slow down and work to unravel some of the complexity of past events.
On a day when many people are thinking and writing about Dr. King, it’s important to remember that in the last four years of his life (starting in 1964 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize) Dr. King’s message became far more radical than his speech from 50 years ago today.
Dr. King started to focus more on economic inequality and on the militarism that drove the Vietnam War at the expense of anti-poverty programs. When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 — at the young age of 39 — he was in Memphis helping garbage workers protest their unjust working conditions.
E.J. Dionne, Jr., wrote a piece in the Washington Post two years ago, titled Let’s honor the real Dr. King, ‘an extremist for love’ that is worth reading. That piece concludes with the idea that Dr. King was far more controversial than the “I Have a Dream” speech might suggest. Here’s the last paragraph of Mr. Dionne’s column:
We have rendered King safe so we can honor him. But we should honor him because he did not play it safe. He urged us to break loose from “the paralyzing chains of conformity.” Good advice in every generation — and hard advice, too.
In 1967, Dr. King courageously spoke out against the Vietnam War — most famously in a speech titled Beyond Vietnam. It’s eerie that Dr. King’s speech — about how the war in Vietnam was taking funds away from anti-poverty programs and was corrupting the soul of America — basically works today if you substitute “Afghanistan and Iraq” for “Vietnam.”
Superficially, as we look around America in 2013, things seem to look pretty good as far as Dr. King’s dream goes — there’s far more getting along and far more integration in many walks of life than in the 1960s. There’s an African American president. There are no more segregated drinking fountains. Most schools and companies have diversity goals.
But Durham, the city where I live, has a poverty rate of roughly 20 percent, and the NC legislature is passing laws that are making it more difficult for African Americans and poor people to register to vote. Our schools are under-funded. We have work to do.
Dr. King wrote, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In a world where it’s possible at the click of a mouse to know about injustice in places like Egypt (700 killed and 4,000 injured in recent protests) and Syria (likely use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government), and the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, we have a responsibility to address injustice wherever we see it.
One of my favorite sections from Dr. King’s Beyond Vietnam speech is the part where he responds to critics who wonder:
“Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?” “Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,” they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
I worry that students today are too busy preparing for standardized year-end tests, and as a result have limited time to follow world events. They, like Dr. King’s audience from 1967, “do not know the world in which they live.”
Our schools — starting with our middle schools — should help broaden students’ perspective and give them a better sense of the world in which they live so that they can understand why Dr. King would speak out against the Vietnam War.
Dr. King’s dream is a powerful one — and it’s worth viewing the entire speech and putting it in historical context (NPR has a nice feature that contains audio and video from the day, called Flashback: The March on Washington).
It’s worth considering how much has changed in the past 50 years.
But we should not make the mistake of reducing Dr. King to just that one speech. His life’s work — particularly his work in the final four years of his life — was far more complex than just his dream of social and political equality — powerful and important though that dream was.
Dr. King was more than a dreamer, and he focused on harder issues that are still with us today — such as economic justice and the rampant militarism in our world. As we honor Dr. King and his magnificent speech of 50 years ago, we should also resolve in the coming weeks to take time to read and reflect on some of his later writings and speeches. It will be time well spent.