60 years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech, perhaps one of the 10 most famous speeches of all time, the “I Have a Dream” speech.
The speech was a stirring call to a nation not living up to its promises. It talked about racism on a personal level (the oft-quoted “content of their character” passage) and he also talked about racism on a structural level, about police brutality, and about being admonished for being outspoken by comfortable white people. This past weekend, a recognition of this momentous occasion was held in Washington, D.C. at the site of King’s speech.
Unfortunately, on many levels, this speech has become a weapon of choice by Republicans and others, who selectively choose words out of context to attempt to shame people of color about being outspoken on the fact that racism is still a problem in this country. You see this every MLK Day when people like Failed Governor Ron DeSantis trots out some random MLK quote that his staff has pulled out of context. Usually, it is about “divisiveness,” and blames civil rights activists for this divisiveness, as if calling for our country to be truly a unified nation is somehow “divisive.”
This is devious, but racism is, of course, rather devious. And we as a nation are just not that into addressing race. King’s speech on that day was effective in that it was a beautiful and stirring speech, and also one designed to meet America’s limited appetite for talking about race. We saw this once again in the very quick demand to declare that the United States has become a post-racial nation in the days after Obama was elected. Any attempt to dispute this was loudly and often forcefully shut down, a true example of using shallow positivity as a weapon. Many of us saw how the worst of us portrayed Obama online and at Tea Party protests, and how Obama had to very carefully tip-toe around any race subject. In a nation truly advancing towards a post-racial future, you would never see this.
King himself was well aware of what nation he lived in, and his views evolved based on what was actually happening around him. His optimism that white moderates would see the peaceful resistance and be moved by it to support his movement was tempered by reactions to his Birmingham campaign by white moderate ministers who admonished him for “moving too fast.” Indeed, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was a response to this wishy-washy finger-wagging.
After the I Have a Dream speech, King often lamented that his dream at certain moments had turned into a nightmare. He found his early optimism had been tempered by realism, a realism brought on by what could be best described as a second Redemption period, similar to the Great Redemption that swiftly followed the all-too-brief Reconstruction period after the Civil War. During the Great Redemption in the late 19th Century/early 20th Century period, whites of ill will did things like erect many of the controversial Civil War statues. And that was to destroy much of the progress made on race.
While we are certainly no longer the America of the early 1960s, racism in a lot of ways has regained power. Schools, in many cases, are back to being segregated, for example. We have a significant portion of our nation who when they say “Make American Great Again” actually mean a return to the Jim Crow era. King feared this and felt it was due to structural racism, and his fears have proven all too true.
As if to drive home the point that while we have advanced race relations in the last 60 years but still have a lot of work to do, three Black people in Jacksonville, Florida, were murdered by a racist white person who targeted them over race during the same weekend as the I Have a Dream remembrance. The social media reaction to this ranged from the New York Times being reluctant to call an open racist who murdered Black people a racist to the usual what-aboutisms to Vivek Ramaswamy blaming the media, the left, and universities for the racism that led to the shooting. Unfortunately, this is not just the view of crazy right-wing loonies but pretty much the view of more respectable take-slingers like David Brooks, who trotted out the “left makes the right do bad things and that’s why we have Trump” argument a few weeks ago.
These are people who will also quote King out of context when it suits them. These are also the same people who would disapprove of him today. We know this because King’s disapproval number was 75% as per a poll in the year he was assassinated. Today, King’s approval numbers are as close to universal acclaim as you can find in today’s climate.
America sure prefers its civil rights leaders to be dead. I see it in the laments that there are “no good civil rights leaders anymore” coming from some white people.
Today, we have many strong leaders of a new civil rights movement. Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock, Rev. William Barber, Rep. Barbara Lee, and Sherrilyn Ifill are just a few. These are people who are both carrying King’s torch and fighting new battles, such as school boards that want to erase Black history from school curriculums.
The fight continues to realize that famous dream. It never went away, and dismissal, a shallow concept of unity, and refusal to acknowledge reality have failed to shut it down. And that is where we as a nation can find hope in this current rather dark time.
The last word goes to Chris Pierce.