The best way to honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and to recognize the enduring significance of his “I Have a Dream” speech, 50 years ago today, is to read the speech. Or better yet to listen to it.
Backed by the towering image of the seated Abraham Lincoln, presiding over the National Mall like a judge, King laid out the case against discrimination: “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. The note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on the promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”
Yet King did not frame his argument in terms of the demands of black citizens, as oppressed as they were within the “dark and desolate valley of segregation.” Rather, he framed the civil rights struggle as an effort to purify the American dream. King was a patriot. Unlike some other black leaders who, for obvious reasons, rolled their eyes at the unrequited platitudes of America’s founding documents, King embraced them: His sense of hope came not only from God, but from the Founding Fathers. King praised the many “white brothers” who came to the National Mall because they “realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
King’s remarks struck a chord with Cold War audiences, who were accustomed to rhetoric contrasting America’s belief in individual liberty with Communist oppression. But he knew that his message wasn’t just scripted for the moment; it was ingrained in the American spirit. In that sense, he might be thwarted for a time, but he could not lose. He was exposing a hypocrisy that most white Americans had willfully ignored for decades. And in his soaring vision of the future, in which the descendants of slave owners and slaves sit together in a spirit of brotherhood, and children are judged not by “the color of their skin but the content of their character,” he set out an ideal that Americans have been working to fulfill ever since.
That much he probably envisioned. What he might not have envisioned is how, 50 years later, his movement has come to dominate American politics. The arguments he made from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial gave force to other appeals for justice, from the women’s movement to gay rights. And he cleared the way for President Obama’s election not only by removing barriers to black participation in the electoral system, but also by setting the moral framework for Obama’s politics. Today’s Democrats have embraced the civil rights movement as almost a founding moment — similar to the Civil War and the New Deal in its ability to wash away what came before it and set the nation moving ahead in an altered landscape.
Almost every issue of social importance, from immigration to criminal justice, can be viewed through King’s template. Does it perpetuate old prejudices? Advance equality? Contribute to the cause of a freer, fairer nation?
Like Lincoln, King accepted the idea that grave injustices can and will occur, brought about by misguided prejudices and economic arrangements, even within a godly and righteous system. But the core sense of freedom articulated by figures from Jefferson to Lincoln to King remains the national creed, and it is not static. Indeed, the process of refining and applying American values to new challenges and changing circumstances is part of the creed itself: Ours is an ongoing revolution. That was Lincoln’s answer to the defenders of slavery; it was King’s answer to those who spoke of states’ rights and segregation in the 1960s. It is, today, Obama’s answer — and that of millions of others — to a conservatism that preaches a doctrine of “original intent,” in which all virtue comes only from the nation’s distant past.
King’s achievement was not only in renewing the American dream, but establishing a template for more renewals to come.