This past weekend witnessed a trifecta of momentous anniversaries. Katrina happened 5 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” on the Washington Mall 47 years ago, and Mother Teresa was born a century ago.
Yesterday: Katrina; Today: “I Have a Dream;” Tomorrow: Mother Teresa
Forty seven years ago, on August 28th, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what must stand as one of the most quoted speeches in American history and one of the most important speeches of the twentieth century.
Tens of thousands remembered and commemorated that address on Saturday with a “Re-claim the Dream” march led by the Reverend Al Sharpton which ended near the location of the 1963 rally.
Now commonly called the “I Have a Dream” speech, its most memorable and most quoted line, ”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,” is also its saddest line.
King’s successors may frequently recite the words but have lost sense of their meaning and spirit.
(Fortunately forgotten was a subsequent line that reflected a Freudian slip of a dream added after King departed from his prepared text, ”Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!” The FreeOnlineDictionary defines “curvaceous” as “[of a woman's body] having a large bosom and pleasing curves; [as in] ”Hollywood seems full of curvaceous bondes;” “a curvy young woman in a tight dress,” which surely Dr. King did not mean at all.)
King’s stirring 10-minute address was delivered before a massive crowd of civil rights supporters estimated at some 200,000, and delivered, appropriately, it was believed at the time, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Had certain truths about Lincoln, that he did not consider African-Americans to be in any way equal to whites and had worked desperately to find them homes in Haiti and Africa, been more widely known in 1963, King and his followers would certainly have chosen a more appropriate venue than the Lincoln Memorial.
Nevertheless, it was a speech that literally changed the country if not the world and which literally changed the lives of millions of what were then called “coloreds” in the United States and represented an unprecedented new era, a new sense of freedom for all races.
King’s speech followed by nine years the momentous 1954 Earl Warren Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas which struck down segregation in separate but equal schools in America permitted by the previous Plessy v. Ferguson decision.
The “I Have a Dream” address was no less infuential and momentous for blacks than the Brown decision even if the sentiment of being judged by character and not by skin color has been largely dismissed or ignored by many of those same blacks today.
If he were alive today, King would not be an exceptionally old man at 81 but, if he had remained true to the principles of his 1963 speech, he would be both ashamed and furious at how his beliefs had been twisted and distorted.
He would be disappointed and chagrined at how affirmative action schemes reaffirm the supremacy of color over character, at how the nation’s first semi-black president and first black attorney general had subverted the Justice Department and made it as inimical to whites today as Jim Crow laws had been inimical to coloreds, at how many blacks feel in 2010 that they deserve preferential treatment precisely because of the treatment of their forebears, at how too many blacks feel that the color of their skin, regardless of the content of their characters, qualified them for unequal and superior rights.
Had he lived 47 years after his outstanding and moving “I Have a Dream” address, and, again, had he still adhered to the principles articulated in that address, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have wept.
He would have wept and re-written that speech to reflect the times in which we live. He would have had to change his most memorable line to, “I had a dream, but it has been lost.”
He would have wept and wondered how his civil rights movement had been co-opted by the likes of Al Sharpton and other black racist agitators and supremacists.
He would have wept that Sharpton saw fit to use the occasion of the 47th anniversary of his address to attack as racist Glenn Beck’s huge contemporaneous Restoring Honor rally, a rally at which traditional American values were promoted and King was repeatedy extolled.