Weekly Briefing

What would MLK say?

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Recent developments in NC highlight how much of King’s dream remains unrealized

Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous speeches in American history: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech at the original, 1963 March on Washington.

Down through the years there have been innumerable reviews, celebrations, recitations, critiques, etc… of the speech. Indeed, the speech has become so ubiquitous and even commercialized in recent decades (especially the last few sentences) that it’s taken on a kind of separate life of its own. Like many other famous events in history, the speech is now so familiar that much of the original energy and meaning has been bleached out. If you doubt this, check out the conservative politicians who quote it or stand by in dutiful attention as the last few moments are replayed at King Day celebrations, sporting events and other public occasions.

The same process has also occurred with the public image of King himself. As has happened with other great figures in American history – Washington and Lincoln are the most obvious examples – both King and his most famous speech have been detached from and elevated above the times and context in which they existed. This is at once a heartening and pernicious process.

A mixed blessing

It’s heartening because it represents, in many ways, a victory. Even though so many have watered King and his message down to a point at which they’re both about little more than ending formal, legal segregation, the almost universal acceptance is still an improvement over where things were half a century ago – a mean and toxic time during which even integrated restaurants and hotels were a radical idea in many places.

The overt hate and vitriol of George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Bull Connor and their ilk is, thankfully, not acceptable in polite company in 21st Century America. Good for us for having managed that important bit of progress.

But obviously, King and the movement he led were about much, much more than simply banishing overt discrimination and hate. Even in the “I have a dream” speech itself – during the less frequently quoted and less well-remembered sections toward the beginning and the middle – King outlined a much more ambitious and far reaching vision. Consider again some of the words:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed to the ‘Unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ 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 check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to his 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. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

As journalist Gary Youngue argues persuasively in The Nation this week:

[T]he country has chosen to remember a version of ‘I Have a Dream’ that not only undermines King’s legacy but also tells an inaccurate story about the speech itself. King made explicit reference in his oration to both the limits of legal remedy and the need for economic redress to confront the consequences of centuries of second-class citizenship.” 

In the years that followed the 1963 march, King spelled out this vastly more ambitious vision in great detail – the end of poverty, the right of workers to organize, the end of unjust wars – often in the face of intense, even vicious, opposition and frequently with little in the way of measurable success to show for it.

What if…?

So, what of these times in which we find ourselves today? Is it somehow impertinent or even profane to ponder what the great man would be thinking and doing now had he somehow escaped the assassin’s bullet in Memphis? Maybe.

And of course, such “what if?” games are not always terribly useful because we cannot know and factor in how events would have transpired differently – much less how King himself might have evolved and aged had he not been stolen from us and martyred.

Still, it’s remarkable to consider the fact that many of King’s peers are still alive and active in 2013. He was only 34 on that hot summer day back in ‘63 and only 39 on the day he died. He would be 84 today. Nelson Mandela was President of South Africa at that age.

Anything is possible, but the guess here is that King would still be a senior statesman in the movement for justice, peace and equality. And if this were somehow magically the case, it is virtually impossible to imagine that he wouldn’t be doing everything within his power to fight the events taking place today in North Carolina.

Before the rousing conclusion of the “Dream” speech, King urged those who had trekked to Washington for the march to “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

If he were alive today it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have urged the attendees at last Saturday’s March on Washington to “go back to North Carolina” to help address our troubled “situation.”

Rev. William Barber, one of King’s most gifted heirs in the modern civil rights movement invoked just such an image last week at a press conference in Durham. In announcing a series of action events that will take place around the state today (click here to find the one nearest you), Barber called North Carolina “the Selma of today” – the modern, gussied-up incarnation of the regressive phenomena that King battled against.

He was right.

Today’s world is vastly more complex than it was in 1963, but at its core, our fight is his fight. Whether the issue is voting rights, regressive taxation, corporate greed, the future or public education or any of a dozen other issues on which North Carolina raced backward in 2013, there can be little doubt that the state is measurably farther away from realizing King’s dream today than it was eight months ago.

We owe it to ourselves, our kids and his memory to make sure that those marching in 2063 will remember and benefit from our response.

Above image: This work is in the public domain and is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration.