Monday was the 60th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr (MLK). It is considered one of the most celebrated speeches in history. The civil rights leader gave words of hope to millions of Black people who continued to suffer economic misery nearly 100 years after the abolition of slavery in the United States.
King’s inspiring words – spoken before a crowd of more than 250,000 mostly Black people on August 28, 1973 in Washington, DC – have been immortalised.
His proposals on civil rights initiatives are rightly celebrated. But critics have also pointed to the politically prescriptive limits of the “I Have a Dream” speech.
In the years after he gave the address, King eventually had to wrestle with the reality that the US would struggle with its promise to create a more perfect union of economic equity and racial harmony.
Many speeches and interviews he gave in subsequent years reflect a more mature MLK, who had harsh criticisms of the ideological prescriptions of the “dream” speech that he gave at the young age of 34.
Moreover, there is biting criticism of lost opportunities and broken promises that were mentioned in the 1963 speech, which was peppered with “believe” and “hope”, setting the stage for a more aspirational approach, while casting a wide political net to bring the country forward racially and economically.
In later speeches such as “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” – and in an interview on the new phase of the civil rights struggle with NBC correspondent Sander Vanocur in 1967 – King’s language had become a bit sharper.
When asked in the NBC interview to reflect on the moments behind the “I Have a Dream” speech, King referred to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that led to the passing of progressive legislation against racial segregation.
“I must confess that period was a great period of hope for me and I’m sure many others all across the nation,” he said. “Many of the Negroes who had about lost hope saw a solid decade of progress in the South.”
King noted, however, that “hope” must be balanced with “realism”.
“I must confess that the dream that I had that day has at many points turned into a nightmare,” he said. “Now I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future. But I’ve had to analyse many things over the last few years, and I would say over the last few months, I’ve gone through a lot of soul-searching in agonising moments. And I’ve come to see that we have many more difficult days ahead and some of the old optimism was a little superficial and now it must be tempered with a solid realism and I think the realistic fact is that we still have a long long way to go.”
King, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), organised the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) – also known as the Poor People’s March on Washington – to demand legislative initiatives to address poverty.
Unfortunately, the civil rights leader would not see the workings of the PPC, as he was assassinated in April of 1968 by a white man.
‘I Have a Dream’ with demands
The “I Have a Dream” speech has frozen the political ideas of Martin Luther King in a way that de-emphasises the demands that were requested in the speech. Although aspirational, the dream speech is also about reforming policy and political accountability.
Excerpts include the following:
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque, a cheque which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.”
“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. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.
“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
These parts of the speech are all mentioned before we get to the closing “I have a dream” section, which is often the only section that is discussed in mainstream media circles.
We discuss the dream, but forget about the litany of demands that were made in King’s address.
Four years after the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech
On April 4, 1967, King delivered a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City condemning the Vietnam War:
“A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor – both Black and white – through the poverty programme. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam, and I watched this programme broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
“In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: ‘To save the soul of America.’ We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for Black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear.”
This is not only an anti-war speech, but also an anti-poverty speech – once again revisiting the set of demands from four years earlier.
On August 31, 1967, King spoke about the importance of real policy change in his speech at the National Conference on New Politics in Chicago. In one part of his address, he mentions being booed at a previous event due to a set of recurring broken promises that had fallen short of their intended purpose:
“I had lectured to them about the not-too-distant day when they would have freedom, all here, now. I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing me because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful.”
These words capture how African Americans had grown tired of the speeches with no material gains in their day-to-day lives.
In the words of Langston Hughes, that dream had become deferred. The promise of economic stability had been deferred. The promise of protection from white violence had also been deferred.
King’s last speech was the sermon “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, given at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church of God in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968 – the night before King was shot dead while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
King, then 39, continued with his set of demands while outlining the dangers of political regression:
“That is where we are today. And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the coloured peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that he’s allowed me to be in Memphis.”
Although there are broad sweeping religious undertones to the “Mountaintop” speech, King still focuses relentlessly on prescriptions for the situation in Memphis, where the city’s sanitation workers were striking in 1968.
He continues to redirect the audience’s attention towards his movement’s demands:
“The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers….”
The “I Have a Dream” speech and the march on Washington are significant milestones in the story of civil rights in the US. But there are many other complicated and controversial topics that King discussed, including reparations, the military-industrial complex, and the diversification of the federal judiciary.
Critics say the disproportionate focus on the “I Have a Dream” speech is an attempt to sanitise the public image of King to make him more palatable in the eyes of the public. We need to understand all the dimensions of what King represented, they say, to accurately represent his story without reframing the significance of his impact during the zenith of the civil rights movement.