WE Have a Dream: revisiting Dr. King’s speech, 50 years later

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered fifty years ago today, August 28, 1963.

Text:  “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope to millions of slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the colored America is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the colored American is still sadly crippled by the manacle of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

One hundred years later, the colored American lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the colored American is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our Nation’s Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great 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 to the inalienable 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 its colored people a bad check, a check that 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. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.

We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.

Now it the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Now it the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of its colored citizens. This sweltering summer of the colored people’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning. Those who hope that the colored Americans needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.

There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the colored citizen is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the colored person’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.

We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “for white only.”

We cannot be satisfied as long as a colored person in Mississippi cannot vote and a colored person in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

No, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of your trials and tribulations. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by storms of persecutions and staggered by the winds of police brutality.

You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our modern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you, my friends, we have the difficulties of today and tomorrow.

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

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.

I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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 their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interpostion and nullification; that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be engulfed, every hill shall be exalted and every mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. 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 climb up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father’s died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi and every mountainside.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement 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 spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.””

Our thoughts:
From hlward:

This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

This past Saturday I went to a celebration of the anniversary of the March on Washington at my local City Hall. It was organized by all the groups you would expect, and it was a lovely event. A variety of speakers read portions of Dr. King’s “Dream” speech, including the chairs of both the local Democratic and Republican parties. The crowd of fifty or so onlookers was about half white, half black, and all quite friendly.

If you didn’t know better, you might think we had achieved the Dream.

If you didn’t know African-Americans are about 12 percent of the US population but African-American men make up 40 percent of the US prison population, you might think we had achieved the Dream.

If you didn’t know African-American average household income is fully one-third less than that of all American households of all races you might think we had achieved the Dream.

If you didn’t know that “driving while black” is not a joke, you might think we had achieved the Dream.

But we do know those things, you and I. To pretend that we do not is nothing less than succumbing to the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

There are those among us who never subscribed to the Dream. Who, to this day, in their private moments, will tell you that Martin Luther King, Jr. was nothing but a “nigger troublemaker.” And they are active. They are working hard to roll back every inch of brotherhood and decency gained by the blood, sweat and tears of two generations.

Gradualism will not defeat them.

The Dream is still waiting at the end of a long, hard road. There are people who want to block that road. I don’t know about you, but I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round. That’s an easy thing for a white boy like me to say, but white, black, brown or any color of the rainbow, we have to march together if we’re going to reach freedom land.

From tamsworld:

Dear Dr. King,

First, I would like to thank you. As a young black girl, your words touched me. Your compassion motivated me. Your dream gave me hope. Your dream made me dream, so to speak.

Who doesn’t love dreams? Pleasant interludes that allow us to escape reality. Dr. King, you had a dream. This dream was articulated in such an inspirational fashion that we forget the core of it. Equality. You dreamed many decades ago of a time when all people would be judged solely on their character and not the color of their skin. You dreamed of a time when poor people could escape their “island of poverty”. You dreamed of a time when life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would apply to all Americans. Even me, whom you fought for before I was a thought in my mother’s mind.

I will admit, and beg your pardon, that it took me a few years to understand. Having been born in 1975, I figured it was done. It was an unfortunate part of history. Your marches, protests, speeches, and abuse had put paid to that debt. I didn’t have to do anything but be a good person and, well, ..dream.

But, then, I grew up.

I think I understand, now. As a mother, I remember setting the bar really low when my sons first attempted something. But, as years passed, obstacles changed. To be an effective parent, I had to change with them. When the days of slaying under-the-bed monsters were over, I learned to handle playground bullies and peer pressure. And when new barriers pop up, I must be able to confront those, too. Because slaying an imaginary monster won’t get my sons into college or help them find gainful employment.

I don’t believe America has learned that lesson yet. We are still slaying the slavery monster. But slavery and lynchings are no longer our primary obstacles. Blatant racism and bigotry are no longer the enemy of justice. Voter discrimination, gerrymandering, school to prison pipelines, the bogus “War on Drugs”…those are our new monsters. Blacks are still unemployed at a sickeningly higher rate than other Americans. Still tried and jailed at disgustingly higher rates than other Americans. Black schools are still massively neglected. Still on the outside, looking in.

So, we continue to dream. On this anniversary of your iconic speech, I am unashamed to say that your dream is my dream. Unashamed? Yes. You see, I have learned that the fight for true equality is not a sprint, but a marathon. Sure, progress has been made. As a black woman who had the opportunity to live out many of her dreams, I am eternally grateful. The struggle that you, and others, endured allowed that to be possible. I pray that before I leave this life, I have helped equality along, in some small way. I pray that your dream will always be someone’s dream. Until that day when equality for all – no matter race, creed, or gender – is a reality. On that day, Dr. King, we can wake up from the dream. We will all join hands and be free at last.

From timrockwell:

On the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech I took a few moments to reflect on the purpose of his words and whether or not King’s dream and been realized. Upon reading the speech again (admittedly for the first time in many years) I was struck by its non-combative tone. This was not a general rallying his troops for battle nor was it an incitement to riot. In fact King admonishes the crowd with the words, “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Instead of setting the stage for a war, his message is of peace and unity. He devotes some time to talking about equal rights and how black Americans should have more options than moving from “a smaller ghetto to a larger one.” He talks about how black Americans should be allowed to vote in all the states and how the ones who can vote should have someone representing them. He never blames anyone for these inequalities, he simply says that these are basic rights any human and citizen should expect and continue to demand if they are not being given. And that was the problem. We had a 14th Amendment that was going largely unrecognized in many parts of the country. The situation is better today but could still use improvement.

The heart of his speech comes at the end though. King’s message is not a black message or an anti-white message, it’s an American message, that all people are equal. Then rather than focus on negative illustrations of how people aren’t treated equally, he presents us with a series of beautiful possibilities for the future.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four 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.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”

His overwhelming message, his desire, and his hope was that Americans of any color would live together in peace because before any of the other changes can truly take place, this first change must happen.

Has King’s “Dream” come true? I guess it depends on your individual attitudes and where you live. Martin Luther King’s dream has nothing to do with being poor or rich or being born with advantages or disadvantages. It has to do with looking at the person across the road from you and calling them your neighbor, friend and fellow American, regardless of their skin color or yours.

We could all learn a lot from Dr. King. Not just about civil rights, but how to live as decent human beings.

From seyyaledibe:

I grew up in the Smalltown South of the ‘60s. To say that my grandmother and her peers were not particularly actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement would be somewhat of an understatement. I don’t know if it was a relative lack of education or if they’d just been beaten down so badly living in that place that they dared not hope for very much. We actually had it pretty good , relatively speaking. The lines of demarcation between Whites and Blacks were well-defined, and everybody pretty much stayed on their side. We even had a White Downtown and a Black Downtown.


When I was in third grade, the county instituted “Freedom of Choice,” which meant we could go to the “white” schools if we wanted, but the schools were not integrated. My fourth grade year, the schools were fully integrated. We were told that was a good thing, but I wasn’t convinced then or now that it was. You see, in our town (and probably in many others) “integration” meant absorption. The two schools had the same colors, but when they merged, everything that had been Jackson (the black schools) disappeared. In cases where there were duplications (principals, band directors, music teachers, etc.) the Camden staff took precedence. We had sold our souls to the devil, in a sense: in exchange for the promise of a better education, we had sacrificed our identity. It went as well as could be expected: many of the white students remained; the ones whose parents just couldn’t bear the thought of their children sharing a classroom with more than a few blacks moved to the unaccredited, all-white private school. Even then, I thought they had to be pretty desperate to go to an unaccredited school.
Fast forward some thirty years later, and I returned to that small town with my children. What did I find? The school that had been Jackson Elementary, then Camden Elementary was Jackson Elementary once again, had a black principal, and a majority black student population. The school that had been Camden Elementary, then Camden Primary, was Camden Elementary once again, and was pre-dominated by the children of the town’s white professionals and business people. Today, almost 15 years later, the old Jackson Elementary is the Alternative School and the old Camden Elementary is a magnet school. Coincidence? Maybe…
The fact is, this story tends to illustrate that we really have not come all that far in the past 50 years. We have made some forward progress, ‘tis true, but relatively little. Civil Rights in the country is a treadmill, when it should be a cross-country path.
The part of Dr. King’s speech that has always resonated with me is “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.” When I was younger, it was because I was about the same age as his children, and I felt that what he dreamed for them, he dreamed for me, also. Later, as I raised my own two little brown-skinned babies, it became my hope for them.

I still remember the day in 2007 when I heard that Dr. King’s oldest daughter, Yolanda, had died. It actually hurt my heart. I thought, “That child died without ever realizing her father’s dream. I wonder if any of the others will live to see it?” And in the back of my mind, I wondered if my children would ever live to see it.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of this iconic speech, I have to wonder when or if they will ever be more than just words, just dreams. It seems that the fire in the bellies of the previous generations has been extinguished – or at least assuaged – by fancy mac-mansions, flashy cars, and designer togs. We seem to have decided that it is, truly, better to look good than to feel good. I will admit to you – my brothers and sisters – that I have failed to carry the torch in a public way. I have taught my children the quiet ways in which I was taught, but I regularly see that, even as young adults, they have little more than an inkling of what that period meant to this country in general, and to black Americans in particular.
On this anniversary, I have resolved to ponder that, and ponder ways in which to rectify that. Because I do have a dream: that one day my children will be judged solely by the content of their character. But dreams are for the sleeping. Doing is for the living.

From samanthaimperiatrix:

My initial reaction [when approached for this post]? “I’m a white girl from the suburbs. This dream wasn’t for me. What right do I have to be part of his dream? I’ve never really known discrimination… Have I?”
The truth is, when I read the text again, his dream was for me. And his family. And the people of all colors and races. We are all entitled to that dream. The dream of equality, happiness, love, and peace. Dr. King did not subset his dream for any one race or group. He may have spoke of his dream in the context of Blacks and Whites, but the word equality does not leave a group out in the cold. The Dream that he imparted on us, includes equality for all genders, all races, all sexual orientations, all creeds, and all religions. And no, we have not seen his dream realized. But I hope that my children will see it.

From contrawhit:

I had the unique privilege of attending Dr. King’s old church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, when I was a junior in college. Some very kind deacons and deaconnesses with the most amazing hats let me stay until after the service and stand behind the pulpit.

I don’t think they let most people do that. Being in the historic church was humbling enough, but standing behind the pulpit made my eyes water and I still don’t have words.

My college was in Atlanta, where I’ll (jokingly) guess that 1/3 of the streets are named after Civil Rights Leaders, 1/3 are named “Peachtree”-something, and the last third are either confederate leaders or people behind the invention and development of Coca-Cola. Living in Atlanta for those brief years shaped and improved my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, of Dr. King, of Bayard Rustin, of Malcom X–and so many others who gave their blood, sweat, tears….and their lives. And don’t you dare forget the Sisters of the Civil Rights Movement or the fact that Dr. King’s now 50-year old speech was encouraged, inspired, and even occurred because of Mahalia Jackson.

His dream is not dead, nor has it been fully realized. His dream is a work in progress. His dream is a challenge for everyone, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability. .

It’s clear that we (adults) are all responsible to continually challenge ourselves and others.  I don’t mean in a confrontational way either; I have no room or time for hate. For example, I just encountered someone on a forum advocating for a form of segregation. I quoted Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” as a response. If this person continues, I’m going to quote Letter from a Birmingham Jail (which I used to teach in comparison to Plato’s Phaedo.)

When I taught “Race, Class, and Gender” to incoming education majors in the early 2000’s, there was a terrible hate crime. The details aren’t important except that two of my students were targeted because of their race and gender. I was horrified. The director of the program called me in and advised that I not talk about the situation, but instead carry on like everything was fine.

Ethically, I could NOT follow his instruction to pretend nothing happened.

So, I talked privately with the two targeted students. With their permission, I ditched the curriculum that day and we, as a class, talked about how this hate crime affected everyone and hurt their community. We developed ways for everyone to feel safer and regain that sense of community.

To this day, that may have been the most successful class I taught because the students–who are now teachers–left with an incredible understanding and commitment that followed them throughout their schooling.

Now that I have children, teaching them about race is not just important, it is a moral imperative, it is my ethical duty if they are to grow up and be allies and advocates for basic human rights, civil rights, and the (dying) idea of justice.

Last year, my parenting skills were put to the test. In October, my then 5 year old asked her kindergarten teacher about race. One of the children in the class had relayed (on the playground) that his father had a friend who wouldn’t vote for Obama because he’s black. My child asked the teacher, “Why would someone not vote for Obama because he’s black?”
Well, for that damn innocent question which would have made a great lesson, we were called in to discuss my child’s “racism.” All that was offered as proof of her racism was that she asked that question.

So Dr. King…and all those who worked with you, for you…we are still pushing for your dream to be a full-on reality.

We won’t let you down.

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5 thoughts on “WE Have a Dream: revisiting Dr. King’s speech, 50 years later

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