As the throngs gather at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial for today’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, the voice of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will ring in the subconscious of many of the faithful. While the 1963 event is remembered for the size of the gathering and the civil rights legends and celebrities that were present, what remains at the forefront of our national memory is the prophetic oratory of Dr. King. Others spoke on August 28, 1963 but it was the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) who defined the Great March. What is now known as the “I Have a Dream” speech was part inspirational oratory, evangelical preaching and stunning indictment of white supremacy and the nation’s complicity in the oppression of African-Americans. The irony is that the hopefulness of King’s words, embodied in the “I Have a Dream” refrain, the impromptu “whooping” of a Baptist minister, is most recalled but the civil rights leader’s blunt condemnation of racism is conveniently forgotten.
Clearly, the cheerful and hopeful Dr. King is what America, at least many whites and some Blacks, want to remember about the slain leader. We witnessed this over the early controversy surrounding the King memorial on the Mall as critics claimed the original likeness of Dr. King was too stern. It seems many Americans would like to forget that Dr. King was confrontational and he was attacking a system intent on keeping African-Americans in a position of perpetual servitude. The King of myth has become docile, more concerned about keeping the peace than breaking an evil system. It is why the parts of the Dream speech in which Dr. King raked the nation over hot coals is seldom cited in news coverage, public forums or historical accounts in textbooks. America likes its change neatly packaged and the imagery of a disgusted, perhaps even angry Martin Luther King Jr., doesn’t necessarily fit the narrative of happy and peace loving warrior.
Dr. King set the tone early in his speech when he used the example of a bounced check to dramatize what he described as the nation’s failure to honor the promissory note it had written African-Americans. King exclaimed, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad deck, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds.” In 2013 those words might not ruffle feathers but in 1963 for a Black man, a man already marked for death, to make that pronouncement in the nation’s capital with a statue of Abraham Lincoln behind him was profound. The contempt dripping from those words was likely felt blocks away in the White House as President Kennedy and his staff watched the event on television. The Kennedy White House was anxious over the march and King’s biting words probably sent some on the President’s staff into a tailspin.
The civil rights leader did not stop there; he went on to remind America of the “fierce urgency of now,” far removed from any ideal dreaming. King challenged the nation to make racial justice a priority and cautioned that Blacks would not remain patient forever. He warned, “Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.” King went further and declared, “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.” The future Nobel Peace Prize winner was channeling “No Justice, No Peace” long before it became the popular rallying cry of Rev. Al Sharpton.
Minutes before he let loose his famous “I Have a Dream” soliloquy, Dr. King warned those gathered and watching on television and listening over radio that they could not be satisfied until Blacks were full citizens. As if peering into the future King said, “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” His words evoke the reality of our current political dynamic in which southern states are peeling back voting rights in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and Blacks in the nation’s largest city are being awakened by the “stop and frisk” practices of the New York City Police Department. King had a way of bringing his oratory back to the central theme of justice and he did so immediately after expressing dissatisfaction with the status of the American “Negro.” He famously said, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Just as significant as the prosecutorial language in King’s indictment of America in his speech was his use of economic symbolism to convey that message. Still struggling to get a cautious Kennedy administration to move a major civil rights bill, the tone of Dr. King’s speech suggest he was already beyond seeing a civil rights bill or a voting rights bill passed by Congress and signed into law by the President as the pinnacle of success for the movement. King’s use of the language of fiscal irresponsibility to frame his speech suggests he was already focused on economic disparities as the most significant barrier to social justice. His move to Chicago following legislative victories in 1964 and 1965 were in keeping with a personal shift and his growing discomfort with poverty in America. And he articulates that vision in his last book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community” published posthumously.
The shared national memory of only parts of Dr. King’s speech demonstrates that America listened but they did not hear the full expression of King’s thesis that day. There is still evidence of selective hearing on issues of race as many whites refuse to acknowledge and take serious Black grievances, relying ironically on the salve of carefully extracted excerpts of Dr. King’s March on Washington speech. The embrace of the “Dream” has allowed the nation to create a Disney like fantasy around race and race relations. The constant refrain of “race doesn’t matter” and the insistence that racism is a thing of the past is part of the façade of oneness that America hides behind, and Dr. King’s speech is now used as evidence of the nation’s progress. While there has been obvious signs of progress the relative position of African-Americans in contrast to whites is little better than the environment in 1963. Surely, if he were alive, Dr. King would not be in a celebratory mood and might be using language that compares the nation’s politics as the equivalent of moral bankruptcy. King could certainly dust off his speech from August 28, 1963, delete the “I Have a Dream” fervor and speak again to the promises not kept to African-Americans. Given the intensity of his advocacy for human rights after the ’63 march, present circumstances would likely have compelled Dr. King to be as outspoken in his critique of America if he were taking to the podium today.
Fifty years after that hot August day in 1963 in the seat of national power, whites and African-Americans still appear to be hearing different parts of Dr. King’s speech. Successive polls seem to suggest that many whites believe the worst has passed, racism is a relic and point to the election of a Black President as proof that the nation has moved beyond race. Blacks, for their part, celebrate the election of Barack Obama but are reluctant to declare victory over racism. African-Americans are far from sending out invitations to the post-racial bash while whites seem eager to pop the champagne corks. The divergent views of where America stands on justice and equality is played out every day but what truly distinguishes the racial divide is how Dr. King’s Dream speech is heard and interpreted.
Today marks the 50th anniversary commemoration of the historic 1963 March on Washington.