40 years later, most Americans focus on MLK’s ‘dream,’ not the reality

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Most Americans are familiar with the “I have a dream” passage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous public address. But most have forgotten his admonishments, his criticism of America and the pressures he brought to bear through his message delivered on that sweltering August day 40 years ago, says a civil rights historian at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Too often, that part of his speech is ignored, subsumed to the tranquil tones of ‘I have a dream …,'” says Leslie Brown, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and of African and Afro-American studies, both in Arts & Sciences.

Forty years ago this month, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

For that reason, Brown says, four decades after the March on Washington and King’s renowned “I Have a Dream” speech, that dream is still not realized.

“If there is a change that has occurred since 1963, it is that African-Americans are better able to take the fight into the arenas from which they had been excluded — not that they have won,” Brown says.

“That African-Americans — that all Americans — have gained at least limited access to these places does not, however, mean that the fight is over. For the history of America is itself a struggle for definitions of freedom and equality, and until both are achieved for all, the battle continues.

“Until what race into which one was born, what gender, what class, what geographical region no longer relates to one’s quality of life — access to quality health care, to broad educational opportunities, to gainful employment — his dream remains no more than that,” Brown continues.

“Certainly more Americans today believe that we were all created equal than believed so 40 years ago, yet we stand far from unified on what equality means. Even among African-Americans, differences of opinion range — if not on the goal of equality then on the means of achieving these goals.”

‘Urgency of the moment’

On Aug. 28, 1963, the nation’s attention turned to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as African-Americans, and some whites, gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for a civil rights demonstration. Freedom, they came to argue, carried more than social implications; it carried political and economic ones, too.

The marchers demanded that John F. Kennedy’s administration and Congress not only end segregation and enforce the Constitution, Brown says, but also see to it that African-Americans gained access to the right to vote, as well as to education, employment, and a living wage, all either restricted or denied since emancipation.

Many among the marchers and speakers had just been released from southern jails, Brown says, arrested for acting on their rights to assemble and to speak. Many more had known first-hand of attacks and acts of intimidation carried out by southern whites, including law enforcement. Just weeks before, a bomb placed in the basement of a Birmingham, Ala., church exploded and killed four little girls. And now they gathered in the shadow of Lincoln to make the case for freedom.

Behind the scenes, a vociferous debate engaged march organizers, Brown says. “Given the interracial and ecumenical aspects of the march, how candid could black participants be and still hold together a fragile alliance? While some whites continued to fret that the civil rights agenda demanded too much too soon, many blacks — like the young John L. Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (now a U.S. congressman) — wanted to assert that ‘it was too little too late.'”

The last major speaker on the platform, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, laid out the problem once more: “One hundred years” after Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro still is not free … sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” He continued, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. … still languished in the corners of American society … exile in his own land.”

King left no doubt about the perspective of America’s people of color, and of the purpose of the protest: “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” he charged. “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. … It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro.”

As to the question “When will you be satisfied?” King made it clear that a range of discontents had to be addressed. “We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” As far as King was concerned, “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.”

But 40 years later, Brown says “Americans seem to ignore King’s point, and instead take his words out of context. In doing so, we run the danger of missing the point. King was more than a leader. As a moving speaker, he gave words to the movement, he captured the sentiments of a cross section of African-Americans. Too often, especially in recent political times, we have chosen not to listen. Or, we have chosen to listen only selectively — to the comfortable parts and not the hard parts.

“As we approach its 40th anniversary,” continues Brown, “we have the opportunity to reflect on the speech again, not just for the parts about the dream, but for the parts about the realities and, even more importantly, for the challenge he conferred on us: to turn one into the other. The dream was, first and foremost, 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.’

“Martin Luther King Jr. was considered a rabble-rouser, a troublemaker, a radical for the ideas he articulated,” Brown continues. “If it is so radical to dream, what does one have to be to become an agent of change?”

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s speech, Washington University will host a roundtable discussion at 7 p.m. Aug. 28 in the Women’s Building Formal Lounge on campus. Gerald Early, Ph.D., Washington University’s Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters, professor of English and of African and Afro-American Studies, all in Arts & Sciences, will moderate. Panelists will include Brown — who organized the discussion — as well as other Washington University faculty and noted civil rights leaders from the local community.