When Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a short speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago, nobody guessed it would become an iconic statement, a speech with a name, the “I Have a Dream” speech. Many leaders of the March on Washington wanted to speak early in the program, thinking that the media would leave before the end, when King was scheduled. King had written out a speech, but there was nothing about his dreams, about which he had often spoken before. Near the end of his speech, Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer, who had just performed two spirituals, shouted “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” King spontaneously improvised the heart of that speech, repeating “I have a dream” eight times.
Many people were not thrilled by the speech. Two days later, William C. Sullivan, the head of the domestic intelligence division of the FBI, wrote in a memo to J. Edgar Hoover’s assistant that King’s speech was “demagogic”, and that he was “the most dangerous Negro in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security”. Sullivan noted that Hoover had compared King to Fidel Castro as a hidden Communist. Four months later, Sullivan proposed that the FBI discredit King as a “fraud” and “take him off his pedestal and to reduce him completely in influence so that he will no longer be a security problem and no longer will be deceiving and misleading the Negro people.”
The FBI planned to discredit King by using wiretaps of his phone calls that had been requested by Hoover in October 1963, six weeks after the speech, and approved by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The interviews that Arthur Schlesinger recorded with Jackie Kennedy in 1964 show that she also feared and disliked King.
Since 1963, the arc of the moral universe has curved toward justice. As Americans recognized the hatefulness of discrimination and the ethical superiority of the movement for civil rights, King’s dreams have become plausible goals. On Sunday afternoon, CBS broadcast the tennis match between Serena Williams and Sloane Stevens to an audience of millions. They demonstrated they are by far the best American women players, whose reflexive speed and controlled power are what’s important in their profession, not their skin color. That is one of a thousand examples of how much has changed since King’s speech and at least partly because of that speech. Race is everywhere, and everywhere we look, we see a profound shift since 1963. Some impossible dreams have come true.
Many dreams are still unfulfilled. King 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.” The continuing salience of race as a negative feature of white Americans’ judgments about black people, shown in a hundred studies about every aspect of life, still prevents that dream from being realized.
One thing that has not changed since 1963 is the demonization of black moral leadership. King was accused of being unfit, a supreme deceiver, in order to distract attention from the profoundly disturbing issues he raised. Today our black leader, now elected twice as President, is also unpopular among conservative white Americans, who claim he is socialist, a foreigner, a great deceiver, unfit to lead anyone. A recent poll of Louisiana Republicans asked a question designed to test such prejudice. Those who describe themselves as “very conservative”, nearly half of the respondents, were twice as likely to blame President Obama rather than President Bush for the “poor response to Hurricane Katrina”, although Katrina struck in 2005, more than three years before Obama took office. Partisanship substitutes for logic, the black leader is to blame.
Those people may have no interest in listening to what President Obama said at the Lincoln Memorial a few days ago. But the rest of us could heed once again the voice of moral leadership.
“Because they marched, America became more free and more fair, not just for African-Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for gays, for Americans with disabilities. America changed for you and for me.
“And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call -- this remains our great unfinished business.”
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 3, 2013