Mlk Essay 2013
In March 1968, weeks before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. visited a school in Marks, Miss. He saw something there that witnesses said moved the activist to tears.
Poverty was disproportionately high among black Americans everywhere. But, down South in Marks, nearly 36 percent of the entire population lived in poverty, according to the 1960 census.
President Lyndon Johnson (D), deeply concerned about the number of Americans making do without indoor plumbing, basic health care, or adequate food, had already launched his Great Society social programs, aimed at eliminating poverty and racial injustice. He pioneered Head Start for preschool children, the beginnings of both Medicare and Medicaid, and an Economic Opportunity Act. Over the next decade, those programs helped slice the share of Americans living in poverty from about 22 percent to just under 14 percent.
But Johnson escalated the Vietnam War, and the growing number of Republicans and conservative Democrats -- elected as a backlash to the Great Society -- resisted more funding for social programs, even for inner-city rat control. By the time King showed up in Marks, hope for the war on poverty was fading fast, said Nathan K. Kotz, a journalist and historian who wrote the 1971 book, “Let Them Eat Promises, The Politics of Hunger in America”
In Marks, King saw a schoolteacher distributing lunch to her students. The menu: one slice of apple and a few crackers. King’s evolution from race leader and civil rights activist to anti-poverty crusader was complete, said Lewis V. Baldwin, a professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University who has written and edited seven books about King.
But nearly 45 years after his death, King’s commitment to eradicating poverty and the human indignity that often follows ranks among the least understood and most misquoted and manipulated aspects of his life and work. Today, with poverty approaching levels unseen since the 1960s and a Congress increasingly opposed to expanded social services or spending, understanding what King wanted to do just before his death and what remains to be done seems especially pertinent.
“There’s this tendency to freeze Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered the 'I Have a Dream,' speech,” said Baldwin. “But King’s concern, his activism, went well beyond this call for integration to build and focus on this issue on economic justice and the issue of international peace.”
By 1968, King had led efforts to integrate public facilities and give African Americans full access to the ballot. And he had delivered one of the most iconic speeches of the 20th Century on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But he had reached a dispiriting conclusion, Kotz said. As long as poverty continued to hold a tight grasp on the lives of 38.6 million people -– 22 percent of Americans -- the ability to ride a bus or train and sit where space was available, to eat at a lunch counter, drink from public water fountains -- even to vote -- had limited meaning.
Frustrated, King began criticizing the Johnson administration and the Vietnam War. That March, he officially launched The Poor People’s Campaign in Marks. Around the same time, King demanded $30 million for anti-poverty programs and 500,000 affordable housing units and began making plans for civil disobedience in Washington.
The Poor People's Campaign failed to excite some of King’s oldest allies -- people who had been with him during the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Ala., and the demonstrations that followed the bombing of Birmingham, Ala.’s, 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four little girls. Even some who had allowed their children to protest Birmingham’s segregated lunch counters and face down Bull Connor, fire hoses and police dogs, (See VIDEO here) weren’t so sure.
“At the time, blacks tended to view [President Lyndon] Johnson in the same historical frame that they saw Lincoln,” said Lawrence Eldridge, a religious scholar and historian who wrote the 2011 book "Chronicles of a Two-Front War: Civil Rights and Vietnam in the African American Press.” ”Sometimes they elevated him above Lincoln because his contributions –- the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act -- had been so enormous and, of course, current.”
But for King, commitment to reducing inequality meant speaking publicly about Johnson’s shifting priorities, and challenging private landlords and city governments that shortchanged poor communities with lower-quality services like trash pickup, building inspections and street-cleaning.
King was also a vocal an advocate of government policies that would increase employment and of laws mandating that employers pay living wages. He utterly opposed “right to work” laws.
In 2011, when Wisconsin government employees occupied the state capitol building and protested Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to limit the influence of unions, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview questioned whether King would have supported the workers' protests.
“Don’t be mistaken,” Baldwin said. “King was a public supporter of the rights of workers to collectively bargain and earn a living wage. He was a champion for humanity and a prophetic figure because he was willing to question and critique his country.”
When King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., a few weeks after his visit to Marks, he was there to draw attention to the struggles of a group of sanitation workers, their wages and work conditions. In the decades since, wages have stagnated, union membership has plummeted and the Great Recession pushed poverty levels to four-decade highs.
Today, 46.2 million Americans -- 15.1 percent of the population -- live in poverty, according to the most recent census data. Poverty remains more pronounced among black and Latino Americans. But, poverty is also more common in the South, where nearly 17 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
For Carol Bragg, a longtime activist who is part of the JPMorgan Chase/The King Center’s civil rights scholars team working to determine which of King speeches, letters and papers to make available on the Internet, it’s amazing that people know so little about King’s views on economic justice.
One day, Bragg came across a King sermon she had never heard or read before. It centered around the idea that there are five levels of love. The lowest form of love -- utilitarian love -- is the kind of love a slave master has for a slave, or a business owner for underpaid employees, she said. King called for a “revolution of values.” That struck her as just what America now needs to attack growing inequality.
“We need to become a less thing-centered society and become a people-centered community, where human needs are always primary,” said Brag.
CORRECTION: This story has been changed to correctly describe the composition of Congress in the late 1960s. The Democratic Party maintained a majority in the House of Representatives until the 1990s.
The night before the March on Washington, on 28 August 1963, Martin Luther King asked his aides for advice about the next day's speech. "Don't use the lines about 'I have a dream', his adviser Wyatt Walker told him. "It's trite, it's cliche. You've used it too many times already."
King had indeed employed the refrain several times before. It had featured in an address just a week earlier at a fundraiser in Chicago, and a few months before that at a huge rally in Detroit. As with most of his speeches, both had been well received, but neither had been regarded as momentous.
This speech had to be different. While King was by now a national political figure, relatively few outside the black church and the civil rights movement had heard him give a full address. With all three television networks offering live coverage of the march for jobs and freedom, this would be his oratorical introduction to the nation.
After a wide range of conflicting suggestions from his staff, King left the lobby at the Willard hotel in DC to put the final touches to a speech he hoped would be received, in his words, "like the Gettysburg address". "I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord," he told them. "I will see you all tomorrow."
A few floors below King's suite, Walker made himself available. King would call down and tell him what he wanted to say; Walker would write something he hoped worked, then head up the stairs to present it to King.
"When it came to my speech drafts," wrote Clarence Jones, who had already penned the first draft, "[King] often acted like an interior designer. I would deliver four strong walls and he would use his God-given abilities to furnish the place so it felt like home." King finished the outline at about midnight and then wrote a draft in longhand. One of his aides who went to King's suite that night saw words crossed out three or four times. He thought it looked as though King were writing poetry. King went to sleep at about 4am, giving the text to his aides to print and distribute. The "I have a dream" section was not in it.
A few hours after King went to sleep, the march's organiser, Bayard Rustin, wandered on to the Washington Mall, where the demonstration would take place later that day, with some of his assistants, to find security personnel and journalists outnumbering demonstrators. Political marches in Washington are now commonplace, but in 1963 attempting to stage a march of this size in that place was unprecedented. The movement had high hopes for a large turnout and originally set a goal of 100,000. From the reservations on coaches and trains alone, they guessed they should be at least close to that figure. But when the morning came, that expectation did little to calm their nerves. Reporters badgered Rustin about the ramifications for both the event and the movement if the crowd turned out to be smaller than anticipated. Rustin, forever theatrical, took a round pocket watch from his trousers and some paper from his jacket. Examining first the paper and then the watch, he turned to the reporters and said: "Everything is right on schedule." The piece of paper was blank.
The first official Freedom Train arrived at Washington's Union station from Pittsburgh at 8.02am, records Charles Euchner in Nobody Turn Me Around. Within a couple of hours, thousands were pouring through the stations every five minutes, while almost two buses a minute rolled into DC from across the country. About 250,000 people showed up that day. The Washington Mall was awash with Hollywood celebrities, including Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr, Burt Lancaster, James Garner and Harry Belafonte. Marlon Brando wandered around brandishing an electric cattle prod, a symbol of police brutality. Josephine Baker made it over from France. Paul Newman mingled with the crowd.
It was a hectic morning for King, paying a courtesy visit with other march leaders to politicians at the Capitol, but he still found time to fiddle with the speech. When he eventually walked to the podium, the typed final version was once more full of crossings out and scribbles.
Rustin had limited the speakers to just five minutes each, and threatened to come on with a crook and haul them from the podium when their time was up. But they all overran and, given the heat – 87F at noon – and humidity, the crowd's mood began to wane. Weary from a night's travel, many were anxious to make good time on the journey back and had already left. King was 16th on an official programme that included the national anthem, the invocation, a prayer, a tribute to women, two sets of songs and nine other speakers. Only the benediction and the pledge came after. Portions of the crowd had moved off to seek respite from the heat under the trees on the Mall while others dipped their feet in the reflecting pool. Those most eager for a view of the podium braved the sun under the shade of their umbrellas.
"There was… an air of subtle depression, of wistful apathy which existed in many," wrote Norman Mailer. "One felt a little of the muted disappointment which attacks a crowd in the seventh inning of a very important baseball game when the score has gone 11-3. The home team is ahead, but the tension is broken: one's concern is no longer noble."
But if they were exhausted, they were no less excited. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson had lifted spirits with I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned. Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, followed, recalling his time as a rabbi in Berlin under Hitler: "A great people who had created a great civilisation had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder," he said. "America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent."
King was next. The area around the mic was crowded with speakers, dignitaries and their entourages. Wearing a black suit, black tie and white shirt, King edged through the melee towards the podium.
"I tell students today, 'There were no jumbotrons [large screen TVs] back then,' " says Rachelle Horowitz, the young activist who organised transport to the march. "All people could see was a speck. And they listened to it."
King started slowly, and stuck close to his prepared text. "I thought it was a good speech," recalled John Lewis, the leader of the student wing of the movement, who had addressed the march earlier that day. "But it was not nearly as powerful as many I had heard him make. As he moved towards his final words, it seemed that he, too, could sense that he was falling short. He hadn't locked into that power he so often found."
King was winding up what would have been a well-received but, by his standards, fairly unremarkable oration. "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana," he said. Then, behind him, Mahalia Jackson cried out: "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin." Jackson had a particularly intimate emotional relationship with King, who when he felt down would call her for some "gospel musical therapy".
"She was his favourite gospel singer, and he would ask her to sing The Old Rugged Cross or Jesus Met The Woman At The Well down the phone," Jones explains. Jackson had seen him deliver the dream refrain in Detroit in June and clearly it had moved her.
"Go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed," King said. Jackson shouted again: "Tell 'em about the dream." "Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends." Then King grabbed the podium and set his prepared text to his left. "When he was reading from his text, he stood like a lecturer," Jones says. "But from the moment he set that text aside, he took on the stance of a Baptist preacher." Jones turned to the person standing next to him and said: "Those people don't know it, but they're about to go to church."
A smattering of applause filled a pause more pregnant than most.
"So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream."
"Aw, shit," Walker said. "He's using the dream."
For all King's careful preparation, the part of the speech that went on to enter the history books was added extemporaneously while he was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, speaking in full flight to the crowd. "I know that on the eve of his speech it was not in his mind to revisit the dream," Jones insists.
It is open to debate just how spontaneous the insertion of the "I have a dream" section was (Euchner says a guest in the adjacent hotel room to King heard him rehearsing the segment the night before), but the two things we know for sure are that it was not in the prepared text and it wasn't invented on the spot. King had been using the refrain for well over a year. Talking some months later of his decision to include the passage, King said: "I started out reading the speech, and I read it down to a point. The audience response was wonderful that day… And all of a sudden this thing came to me that… I'd used many times before… 'I have a dream.' And I just felt that I wanted to use it here… I used it, and at that point I just turned aside from the manuscript altogether. I didn't come back to it."
"Though [King] was extremely well known before he stepped up to the lectern," Jones wrote, "he had stepped down on the other side of history."
Watching the whole thing on TV in the White House, President John F Kennedy, who had never heard an entire King speech before, remarked: "He's damned good. Damned good." Almost everyone, including even King's enemies, recognised the speech's reach and resonance. William Sullivan, the FBI's assistant director of domestic intelligence, recommended: "We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous negro of the future of this nation."
A few in the crowd were unimpressed. Anne Moody, a black activist who had made the trip from rural Mississippi, recalled: "I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had 'dreamers' instead of leaders leading us. Just about every one of them stood up there dreaming. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton we never had time to sleep, much less dream."
But most were ebullient. "It would be like if, right now in the Arab spring, somebody made a speech that was 15 minutes long that summarised what this whole period of social change was all about," one of King's most trusted aides, Andrew Young, told me. "The country was in more turmoil than it had been in since before the second world war. People didn't understand it. And he explained it. It wasn't a black speech. It wasn't just a Christian speech. It was an all-American speech."
Fifty years on, the speech enjoys both national and global acclaim. A 1999 survey conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University, of 137 leading scholars of public address, named it the greatest speech of the 20th century.
During the protests in Tiananmen Square, China, some protesters held up posters of King saying "I have a dream". On the wall that Israel has built around parts of the West Bank, someone has written "I have a dream. This is not part of that dream." The phrase "I have a dream" has been spotted in such disparate places as a train in Budapest and on a mural in suburban Sydney. Asked in 2008 whether they thought the speech was "relevant to people of your generation", 68% of Americans said yes, including 76% of blacks and 67% of whites. Only 4% were not familiar with it.
But few of those in the movement thought at the time that it would be the speech by which King would be remembered 50 years later.
"Rustin always said that King's genius was that he could simultaneously talk to a black audience about why they needed to achieve their freedom and address a white audience about why they should support that freedom," recalls Horowitz. "Simultaneously. It was a genius that he could do that as one Gestalt… King's was the poetry that made the march immortal. He capped off the day perfectly. He did what everybody wanted him to do and expected him to do. But I don't think anybody predicted at the time that the speech would do what it did since."
Their bemusement was justified. For if, in its immediate aftermath, the speech had any significant political impact, it was not obvious. "At the time of King's death in April 1968, his speech at the March on Washington had nearly vanished from public view," writes Drew Hansen in his book about the speech, The Dream. "There was no reason to believe that King's speech would one day come to be seen as a defining moment for his career and for the civil rights movement as a whole… King's speech at the march is almost never mentioned during the monumental debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which occupy around 64,000 pages of the Congressional record."
History does not objectively sift through speeches, pick out the best on their merits and then dedicate them faithfully to public memory. It commits itself to the task with great prejudice and fickle appreciation, in a manner that tells us as much about the historian and the times as the speech itself. The speech was marginalised because, in the last few years of his life, King himself was marginalised, and few who had the power to elevate his speech to iconic status had any self-interest in doing so. His growing propensity to take on issues of poverty, followed by his opposition to the Vietnam war, lost him the support of the political class and much of his white and more conservative base.
King's speech at the March on Washington offers a positive prognosis on the apparently chronic American ailment of racism. As such, it is a rare thing to find in almost any culture or nation: an optimistic oration about race that acknowledges the desperate circumstances that made it necessary while still projecting hope, patriotism, humanism and militancy.
In the age of Obama and the Tea Party, there is something in there for everyone. It speaks, in the vernacular of the black church, with clarity and conviction to African Americans' historical plight and looks forward to a time when that plight will be eliminated ("We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating 'for whites only'. No, no, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream").
Its nod to all that is sacred in American political culture, from the founding fathers to the American dream, makes it patriotic ("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.'"). It sets bigotry against colour-blindness while prescribing no route map for how we get from one to the other. ("I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists… little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.")
But the breadth of its appeal is to some extent at the expense of depth. It is in no small part so widely admired because the interpretations of what King was saying vary so widely. Polls show that while African Americans and American whites both agree about the extent to which "the dream has been realised", they profoundly disagree on the state of contemporary race relations. The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman over the shooting of the black teenager Trayvon Martin illustrates the degree to which blacks and whites are less likely to see the same problems, more likely to disagree on the causes of those problems and, therefore, unlikely to agree on a remedy. Hearing the same speech, they understand different things.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have been keen to co-opt both King and the speech. In 2010, Tea Party favourite Glenn Beck held the "Restoring Honour" rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of the speech, telling a crowd of about 90,000: "The man who stood down on those stairs… gave his life for everyone's right to have a dream." Almost a year later, black republican presidential candidate Herman Cain opened his speech to the southern Republican leadership conference with the words, "I have a dream."
Their embrace of the speech has made some black intellectuals and activists wary. They fear that the speech can too easily be distorted in a manner that undermines the speaker's legacy. "In the light of the determined misuse of King's rhetoric, a modest proposal appears in order," Georgetown university professor Michael Dyson wrote in 2001. "A 10-year moratorium on listening to or reading 'I Have a Dream'." At first blush, such a proposal seems absurd and counter- productive. After all, King's words have convinced many Americans that racial justice should be aggressively pursued. The sad truth is, however, that our political climate has eroded the real point of King's beautiful words."
These responses tell us at least as much about now as then, perhaps more. The 50th anniversary of "I have a dream" arrives at a time when the president is black, whites are destined to become a minority in the US in little more than a generation, and civil rights-era protections are being dismantled. Segregationists have all but disappeared, even if segregation as a lived experience has not. Racism, however, remains.
Fifty years on, it is clear that in eliminating legal segregation – not racism, but formal, codified discrimination – the civil rights movement delivered the last moral victory in America for which there is still a consensus. While the struggle to defeat it was bitter and divisive, nobody today is seriously campaigning for the return of segregation or openly mourning its demise. The speech's appeal lies in the fact that, whatever the interpretation, it remains the most eloquent, poetic, unapologetic and public articulation of that victory. •
• Adapted from The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King's Dream, by Gary Younge, published on 22 August by Guardian Books at £6.99. To order a copy for £5.59, including mainland UK p&p, go to theguardian.com/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.