It wasn’t entitled “I Have A Dream.”
On that day in August of 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to speak, the speech in his hand was entitled “Normalcy…Never Again.” When he gave that speech, the closing riff about “his dream” wasn’t in his written notes. It was something he improvised to energize a crowd that seemed disconnected from his prepared words. At the time, the speech was well received, but quickly forgotten as police violently attacked civil rights protesters across the US. Two years later, when asked about that speech, King would famously say, “I have had to watch my dream transformed into a nightmare.”
This past Friday, I attended the 39th Annual Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr held by the Indianapolis Public School system. This event, annually organized by anti-racist icon Dr. Pat Payne, filled the auditorium of the Crispus Attucks High School with over a thousand mostly black folk. While the music was inspiring and the speeches powerful, it was a recitation of the speech by elementary children from the Building Blocks Academy that stole the show. This was no monotone reading, but a memorized and passionate appeal that gained power with each word. By the end, many were in tears. As I cried, I was also aware of how we’ve neutered that powerful speech, emphasizing the words King added rather than the words he spent days preparing.
Listen to these words from the speech…
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. 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.”
As I heard these words recited by those children on Friday, I realized that, as with many things, white Americans have subverted the intent and efforts of black Americans once again. We love to quote one or two lines from the speech, especially “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.” Indeed, I have had white supremacists quote these words to me as “evidence” that my critique of white behavior is racist. I am allegedly judging them by the color of their skin.
Think about that.
White Americans, who once thought King “public enemy #1,” now quote select words from that speech to claim oppression. They intentionally ignore the rest of his speech, the parts that call their injustice and racism into question. They suggest men like Kaepernick and Ta-Nehisi Coates are greedy and unpatriotic for words far less provocative than those of King. They fail to acknowledge that King wasn’t murdered because he was a moderate, extolling a “can’t we all just get along” philosophy. King was killed for his demands and not his dreams.
King did not mount those steps in 1963 to celebrate a dream. King came to collect a debt. And, like him, a part of me wishes he had never added those words about his dream. Too many white Americans have happily adopted the dream – something to happen in the far off future – rather than work for the justice and equity King demanded. Or, even worse, we’ve had the audacity to look around our culture today and suggest the dream has been fulfilled. Laws have changed. Opportunities have expanded. We even elected a black president.
Of course, he was a neutered black president.
Imagine for one moment that Barack Obama has spoken these words in a campaign speech, “America has given black people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds”, but I refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. I refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, I am coming to cash that check, a check that will give black people – upon demand – the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
If he had spoken those words, he would not have been elected.
Instead, Barack Obama spoke of hope…of dreams.
On Friday, as I sat in that auditorium with descendants of enslaved people, aged black warriors who once marched with King, and children who are still being judged by the color of their skin, I sensed their deep frustration. That we ended the program by singing “We Shall Overcome” was revealing. The dream has not been realized. The demands have not been met. So many of the obstacles have yet to be overcome.
One of those obstacles will always be white people who like racial justice as a dream.