As we mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there’s one thing to remember about the civil rights leader’s best-known speech: His dream of a country where people are “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” was just that — a dream.

If you are going to use his words to make a point, you must recognize that basic fact, just as you have to understand that, by King’s own standards, the dream he spoke of nearly 60 years ago remains unfulfilled.

The “I Have a Dream” speech, given on Aug. 20, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, is remembered for its soaring, hope-filled ending.

But it was just that: hope. And King knew it — the rest of the speech was much more sober about the plight of poor and oppressed, and the failure of this country to live up to its promises.

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said. “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.” 

Even in the face of our country’s failure, King maintained his dream of a more egalitarian America. But he most certainly did not see its fulfillment as a sure thing, even for a country founded on such high-minded ideals. Instead, he pressed in his speech for the nation to act now and not “overlook the urgency of the moment.”

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Throughout his public career, King sharpened his message, making it clear how he felt about this country’s treatment of the oppressed and dispossessed. He preached about how they have been shoved aside, and worse, by the “three evils” of America: racism, poverty and war.

“This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots,” King declared in a 1968 sermon. “The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

He was clear, too, that people of good conscience cannot stand aside. As he wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham jail,” “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Speaking this kind of truth to entrenched power made him an enemy of those who benefited from and wished to perpetuate the system.

Just as today, Americans loved King when they could believe he was preaching about a color-blind America, but blanched when he talked about how far we had to go.

As a result, public opinion on King soured in the years before his murder at the hands of a white supremacist. Fifteen years after his death, 22 U.S. senators and 90 House members voted against honoring him with a national holiday, and one, Jesse Helms, undertook a 16-day filibuster of the bill, with the support of fellow senators John McCain and Chuck Grassley, who remains in the Senate today.

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Some of these same people, as well as their political descendants, trot out King’s words whenever they want to deflect the realities of being Black in our country. They say King wouldn’t have wanted us to separate ourselves based on race and class.

But that’s not what King was saying.

King was saying that we are already separated on the basis of race and class, and it is for the purpose of enriching those with power and pushing down the rest.

He was, above all else, on the side of the poor and oppressed. His words should be used for no other reason than to lift them up.


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