By Roland S. Martin
Very few things will make my skin crawl more than listening to someone totally misrepresent the famous “I Have A Dream” speech the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave on Aug. 28, 1963.
It’s clear that far too many people haven’t bothered to actually read or listen to the speech. Instead, folks – especially those who likely would have branded King a communist, socialist, Marxist or a racial hell-bent on destroying America – love to tout Dr. King’s “content of character” line in order to push back against a variety of issues, especially affirmative action.
Just today, I saw a press release from Project 21, a coalition of black conservatives, suggesting that a rally planned Saturday by a radio talk show host and Fox News personality is akin to the 1963 march.
Coby Dillard, a member of Project 21, is quoted as saying, “”The dream of Dr. King — that every person be judged by their character rather than their color — is one of the tenets that makes our nation honorable in the minds of people around the world. Dr. King’s legacy is a gift to us all, and no one person or organization holds claim to his work and his message. I can think of no better way to honor him by renewing our shared commitment to uphold those principles that have held our country together throughout history.”
It’s clear that Dillard, and so many others, haven’t read a history book or other publications surrounding the march, and instead, love to continue to spread falsehoods, misrepresentations and outright fabrications stemming from the Washington, D.C. march.
First, we need to stop calling it the March on Washington. It was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. If you leave off the “Jobs and Freedom” part, it sounds like black folks just went for a walk that day. Upset with the lack of economic opportunities for blacks at the time, as well as the voting rights injustices, the organizers wanted to put pressure on Congress and the President John F. Kennedy administration to put their muscle behind a comprehensive civil rights bill.
No, the 1963 march had nothing to do with some hokey values espoused by a radio/TV windbag. It was a day to assemble a mass of people to represent a show of strength, and to get leaders in Washington, D.C. to listen to the urgent need taking place across the country.
Second, we continue to misrepresent Dr. King’s speech as the “I Have a Dream” speech.
As CNN’s Soledad O’Brien reported in the special, “MLK Papers: Words That Changed a Nation,” the speech was never called that. It was actually titled “Normalcy – Never Again.” In fact, the “I Have A Dream” portion, which represents the bottom third of it, wasn’t in the original text.
As Soledad reported, Dr. King often gave variations of the “Dream” portion of the speech, and on that day, he was encouraged by gospel great Mahalia Jackson to tell the audience about his “dream.”
There is no doubt that his soaring oratory about the need for racial harmony continues to send chills down our spines today, but if we as a country get so excited and wrapped up in the “dream” sequence, we forget the economic nightmare Dr. King painted in the top two-thirds of the speech. When I give speeches, I often tell folks the “I Have A Dream” portion is the “hoop” part, which is when the pastor begins sing, scream and shout when he/she has finished the sermon. But the real measure of a sermon is the scripture, which serves as the thesis of the sermon.
So let’s get to the meat – or the purpose – of Dr. King’s 1963 speech.
At the top he lays out the vision of slaves being freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, yet 100 years later, “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
Then he makes clear that the purpose of going to the Lincoln Memorial is to “dramatize a shameful condition.”
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” Dr. King said. “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 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.”
King then began to talk about the “fierce urgency of now,” laying out the treacherous conditions upon which Black people lived in, and having to deal with violence and the trampling upon their rights.
He laid bare the despair of not being able to stay in hotel rooms; having to drink out of segregated water fountains; and the lack of voting rights.
Then King launches into the portion about his “Dream.”
Folks, the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream wasn’t about getting along. It was about every man and woman being afforded equal rights, and an opportunity to find a job, raise their family and not have to suffer from policy brutality. His speech wasn’t partisan or political; it was prophetic and was about prosperity.
How is it relevant today? If anyone wants to model that march, then stop with the ego driven nonsense and focus on pushing Congress to enact a jobs bill so Americans can work. Tell Democrats and Republicans to stop playing footsy with lobbyists and looking out for Wall Streets interests. Tell leaders in Washington, D.C. to give a damn about the poor of this country, from the hills of West Virginia to the dusty roads in Alabama. Tell some Republicans to stop their shameful condemnations of Americans who can’t find a job.
For the nearly 250,000 who gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, it wasn’t about ego, it was about results. There was no partisan agenda; it was one where whites and Blacks refused to stand idly by and watch Black Americans denied an opportunity to thrive in this country. In the final five years of his life, Dr. King fought for equal pay for sanitation workers in Memphis, and was planning a Poor Peoples Campaign for DC, to highlight the economic injustices.
Please, take the time to go and read or listen to the speech. Understand the context. Examine the overall mission. And don’t try to pimp and pervert Dr. King’s prophetic word so you can score some political points.
And that goes for a charlatan, even if they have a TV or radio show, who seeks to align themselves with Dr. King’s momentous and radical speech 47 years ago.