In Honor of MLK on the 50th Anniversary of His “I Have A Dream” Speech
By Ken K. Gourdin
In light of the just-passed 50th anniversary of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s momentous, seminal “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, I thought it appropriate to commemorate that anniversary on the blog, as well. (As will be noted below, I am a great fan of both Dr. King’s oratory and of the ideals he espoused.)
To those who suggested that blacks should be satisfied with the (largely tenuous, if not even illusory) progress achieved in race relations and racial equality to that point, as well as with the glacial pace of such change, Dr. King 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.’” 1
To those who suffered physical indignities at the hands of their oppressors, Dr. King said, “You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.” Dr. King invited his listeners to return to their homes carrying faith with them, because—although they experienced prejudice, discrimination, racism, and poverty—they should be assured “that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
Dr. King implored his listeners not to fall prey to hopelessness, despite the difficulty of their struggle against the oppression they faced. “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair,” he said. “I say to you today, my friends. 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.’”
He implored his listeners to reach across the divides of race, class, and former master/slave status. He said, “I have a dream that one day . . . the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
Most all of us are familiar with the “character-not-color” ideal of judgment he pleaded with his listeners to adopt. He said, “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,” and spoke of a day when the rising generation would reach across the racial divide, when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” He exhorted his listeners to have faith, and said:
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And of course, who can forget the stirring way King closed his remarks? He said:
When we allow freedom [to] ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
While, as anyone who has read this blog knows, I have profound and principled policy disagreements with President Obama, to his enormous credit, in his speech at the National Mall commemorating the anniversary of the March on Washington, he recognized that whatever the length of the road to racial parity which still stretches out in front of us, we already have come a long, long way along that road. President Obama said:
Many [blacks in attendance at King’s speech] had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters, had lived in towns where they couldn’t vote, in cities where their votes didn’t matter. There were couples in love who couldn’t marry, soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they found denied to them at home. They had seen loved ones beaten and children fire-hosed. And they had every reason to lash out in anger or resign themselves to a bitter fate.
And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglas once taught: that freedom is not given; it must be won through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.2
Noting the gains they won as a result of their struggle, President Obama also said:
. . . [B]ecause they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.
I have long been a fan and an admirer of Dr. King and of his skill as an orator and an advocate; and I have always been fascinated with the Civil Rights Movement, with this era in history, and with Dr. King’s central role in it. As President Obama also noted in his speech, it wasn’t just blacks who benefitted from the struggle Dr. King led, but other racial minorities, women, and other historically disadvantaged groups.
Consistent with President Obama’s point about the variety of people who benefitted from Dr. King’s advocacy (not just racial minorities), I editorialized in the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin (Utah) in honor of last Martin Luther King Day as follows:
Arguably, I don’t belong to Dr. King’s target audience. I am not a member of “an oppressed group.” (I say arguably because I am disabled.) Nor have I ever engaged in the systematic, deliberate oppression of others.
. . . [A]lthough I am neither a member of a racial minority nor have I engaged in racial oppression, I owe Dr. King an enormous debt of gratitude: had it not been for him and others like him, not only would there likely not be a Civil Rights Act, there likely wouldn’t be an Americans with Disabilities Act, either.3
Dr. King was imperfect, as we all are. But he was a man for his time. My op-ed continued:
Given my lack of “oppressed” status [at least, as a member of a racial majority], perhaps Dr. King’s rhetoric should not resonate with me as much as it does. Still, though he was flawed (as we all are), his words, though significant in themselves, were made even more significant because it was he who delivered them.4
It is true that Dr. King’s skill with the written and spoken word far surpassed mine, and it is also true that not a few people have delivered significant words which their actions have made empty because of major inconsistencies between the two which go far beyond usual human frailties and failings. Of his ability to motivate his listeners with his words, I wrote, “As a lover of words and a fan of language, I can’t help but be impressed with Dr. King’s rhetoric. ([Nevertheless,] I hope it goes without saying that I also believe in what he stood for.) He preached a gospel of love, and of equality, and of inclusiveness.”5
And I concluded my homage to Dr. King, written to commemorate MLK Day in 2013, thus: “All of us – whatever our race, creed, or station in life – are beneficiaries of Dr. King’s vision. And the world is a better place because he, however briefly, inhabited it.”6
Many years earlier, while a student at Dixie College (now Dixie State University) and copy editor of the college’s award-winning student newspaper, The Dixie Sun, I wrote the following about Dr. King:
Most of us are a generation removed from the era of Martin Luther King, Jr. We are a generation removed from the march for civil rights led by King in which he entered his now-immortal words, “I have a dream,” and a generation removed from the jailing of King in Birmingham, Ala. for his anti-racism activities.
To many, King was the leader of leaders, the man who held aloft the beacon to follow in the struggle for human rights. To others King was an enigma, because they didn’t understand the source of his motivation nor the urgency he felt for that struggle. But whether or not they agreed with his methods or understood his motivation, none could deny that King left his own unique indelible mark on human history.7
After briefly reviewing Dr. King’s life and his role in the Civil Rights Movement, I ended with these words: “Though his life was cut short before his dream was realized, his legacy lives on.”8
Often, social change which spreads throughout society as a whole begins in areas such as the military, when policymakers realize that the color of a man’s skin has nothing to do with his patriotism or with how well he can protect his country when given the chance. While, in theory, the military had been integrated by the time my father served in the U.S. Army’s Military Police, true integration, involving a change, not only in policy, but also of hearts and minds, was slow in coming. In tribute to Dad, who was stationed in the southern United States while serving as a Military Policeman in the U.S. Army while “Jim Crow” still ruled the day, last Father’s Day, I wrote the following:
My father has told me many times what a shock it was for a small-town Utah kid to be stationed in the South in the military and for him to see a black man coming the opposite direction on the sidewalk divert his course down into the gutter (which had water in it at the time) as he passed my dad. And for a fellow soldier (black) to hitch a ride off post with my dad, to get into the back seat as they left the post, for my dad to ask what he was doing, and to be met with the reply, “If they catch us riding in the front seat together downtown, they’ll take us both to jail.”
I’m not naive. Racism is still alive and well. Do we have a long, long way to go? Most definitely. But thank God we’re not where we were.9
In July of this year I saw the musical Ragtime and the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier. In reflecting on both, I wrote, in part, the following:
I admit, I cannot relate to Coalhouse’s experience with racial oppression, or to Jackie Robinson’s. But as a person with both a physical disability and a complicated psychological history, I do know what it’s like to hit a glass ceiling—to have seemingly every attempt I have made to improve my circumstances seemingly thwarted at every turn. I know what it’s like to be frustrated in pursuit of seemingly-illusory dreams, not to mention in pursuit of even modest goals.
And what of our shameful national history of oppression based on immutable characteristics? Perhaps it can be said that, “We’re not where we could be, we’re not where we should be, we’re not where we ought to be—but thank goodness we’re not where we were.” Have we achieved Dr. King’s vision of creating a society in which a man is judged not by the color of his skin or by some other immutable characteristic, but rather by the content of his character? No. Do we still have a long way to go? Certainly.
But we’ve also come a long way in our pursuit of the ideals Dr. King expressed. The United States of America may not live perfectly up to the ideals espoused in her Declaration of Independence of treating everyone as having been “created equal,” or of guaranteeing everyone a fair chance at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But we’re closer to doing so now than we have been at any time in our history. Anyone who believes otherwise—and remember, I say this as someone who has experienced a good deal of oppression himself—could use a good dose of the perspective that the stage play about Coalhouse Walker and the movie about Jackie Robinson provide.
Sports and entertainment are more than just games or amusing pastimes. Often, they are the vehicles through which those who pioneer in them (wittingly or not) accomplish needed social change. And in the case of such stage plays as Ragtime, such pursuits not only entertain, they give audiences a lot to think about in the process.
To sum up, I can do no better than to reiterate the point I made in the above-excerpted blog post: thanks in large part to Dr. King and to many others like him, while we’re not where we should be or where we could be, thank goodness (and, in fact, thank God) we’re not where we were.
- This quotation and all subsequent quotations of Dr. King’s speech are drawn from the following source: Martin Luther King Jr. (August 28, 1963), “I Have A Dream,” speech at the March on Washington,: Martin Luther King Jr. (August 28, 2013) “Text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech,” San Diego Union Tribune, text accessed on line at the following address on August 29, 2013: http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/Aug/28/martin-luther-king-i-have-a-dream/4/?#article-copy.
- This quotation and the subsequent quotation of President Obama’s speech are drawn from the following source: Barack Obama (August 28, 2013), “FULL TRANSCRIPT [capitalization as in original]: President Obama’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, The Washington Post, text accessed on line at the following address on August 29, 2013: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/transcript-president-obamas-speech-on-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-march-on-washington/2013/08/28/0138e01e-0ffb-11e3-8cdd-bcdc09410972_story_1.html.
- Ken K. Gourdin (January 29, 2013), “We are all beneficiaries of Dr. King’s vision,” The Tooele Transcript Bulletin A4.
- Ken K. Gourdin (January 24, 1992), “The King Legend Lives On,” The Dixie Sun 10, available on line at the following address, last accessed August 29, 2013: http://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/in-praise-of-mlk-jr/
- Ken K. Gourdin (June 16, 2013), “On Atticus Finch, Nobility, Fatherhood, and Fathers” (Blog post), available on line at the following address, last accessed August 28, 2013: http://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/for-fathers-day/.
- Ken K. Gourdin (July 6, 2013), “Reflections on Ragtime, on Coalhouse Walker, on #42, Jackie Robinson, on Oppression, and on Continued Efforts to Live Up to American Ideals” (Blog post), available on line at the following address, last accessed August 28, 2013: http://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/living-up-to-american-ideals/