Fifty years later, MLK’s speech continues to captivate the imagination and deeply penetrate the souls and consciences of people the world over. MLK was not only a dreamer but also a man of extraordinary vision, unlimited imagination and hope in the infinite capacity of humanity to be humane while acutely aware of “man’s inhumanity to man”. At the 2013 commemorative celebrations of the March on Washington, President Jimmy Carter ranked MLK at the pinnacle of American leadership. “In my Nobel Prize speech of 2002, I said ‘My fellow Georgian [MLK] was the greatest leader in my native state, and perhaps my native country has ever produced. And I was not excluding presidents and even the founding fathers when I said this.’”
As MLK envisioned in 1963, the March on Washington went down “in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of [the United States]”. Its success was assured by the guidance, participation and involvement of courageous civil rights, labor, and religious leaders and organizations and the determined and collective efforts of countless men and women of all backgrounds. There was A. Philip Randolph, a pioneer of the civil rights movement and labor leader who spearheaded the organizing effort. Bayard Rustin, a leading civil rights activist who challenged segregation beginning in the late 1940s, was the leading organizer. Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who led the legal challenges which resulted in major court victories helped develop strategies for the March.
John Lewis, the youngest leader and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who was jailed over 40 times and often brutalized by racist police, resonated the voices of youth at the March. He made an impassioned plea: “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.” James Farmer, the chief organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride which eventually led to the desegregation of inter-state transportation in the U.S. and co-founder of the Congress on Racial Equality was in jail in Louisiana for organizing a demonstration and could not attend. He sent a speech which read in part, “We will not stop until the dogs stop biting us in the South and the rats stop biting us in the North.” Many other civil rights leaders attended.
A number of the most famous members of the entertainment industry were brought to the March by the indefatigable Harry Belafonte including actors Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr., Paul Newman, author James Baldwin, singer Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and others.
An unpleasant truth must also be told. Women were the backbone of the March on Washington, but none were given the opportunity to speak on the issues. The incomparable Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson sang. Daisy Bates, who played a central role in school desegregation in Arkansas spoke, for just over a minute. Many other pioneer women of the civil rights women including Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women and Rosa Parks were present but were not allowed to speak. Rosa Parks later vowed that “women [in the future] wouldn’t stand for being kept so much in the background.”
The March had a number of specific objectives and demands, including passage of a robust civil rights law, elimination of segregation in public education, job training and public programs for the unemployed, use of federal law to prohibit discrimination in public or private hiring, denying federal funds to programs that practice or tolerate discrimination, expansion of workers’ protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act and robust enforcement of constitutional prohibitions on the states under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Interpreting MLK’s Dream
MLK was first and foremost a Baptist minister and then a civil/human rights leader. His life and works were anchored in the teachings of Christ. He was ultimately a moral and not a political leader. So the question today is how one should interpret for oneself the dreams of an inspired moral leader whose appeal to justice, equality and fairness cuts across race, religion, ethnicity or language? What was MLK’s dream?
We all dream about things we feel are important in our lives. Most of us often dream of acquiring fortune, fame or power. Such dreams are fleeting and often without much consequence. Isaiah spoke of a hungry and thirsty man who dreams about eating and drinking but when he wakes up “his soul is empty”. Sometimes we have nightmares instead of dreams. For ages, Americans and others who have come to America from every corner of the world have sought the American dream. Some have found it, others have not. Malcom X did not find the American dream: “I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream–I see an American nightmare.”
What was MLK’s dream? Did he dream the “American dream? Could we and coming generations interpret his dreams?
I believe MLK’s “dream” was different from the dreams of ordinary men and women. I believe his dream was akin to that written in Numbers: “Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, [I] the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, [and] will speak unto him in a dream.” MLK saw a vision and spoke. MLK’s dream was like Jeremiah’s, the “weeping prophet”, who forewarned of the dream of false prophets who use “lies” to tell the people, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed” while holding “deceit of their own heart”. I believe MLK was America’s “weeping” moral leader who held truth and love in his heart. Zechariah said “diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd.” I believe MLK became a shepherd to oppressed people and a moral guide to the oppressors in America. Fifty years after the March, I believe MLK’s life and works illuminate the path for the oppressed and oppressors of the world.
MLK dreamed of leading “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners” to the Promise Land out of the captivity of hatred, segregation and discrimination. Like Moses, MLK died within sight of the Promise Land. He said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
MLK talked about the long nightmare of slavery that African Americans had to endure and the millions of slaves “who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice” before he spoke about his dream of freedom for those “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He felt the urgency of now. He said the marchers had come “to our nation’s capital to cash a check”, a “promissory note” which “guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to every American. He announced African Americans could no longer wait for their freedom any longer and challenged those in power to live out the true meaning of the nation’s creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” He demanded, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
MLK was crystal clear about the process and method of righting racial injustice and achieving the promises of American democracy. His prescription was not “an eye for an eye”. That “would make everybody blind”. He warned, “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” In Ephesians is written, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” The Apostle Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote that Epistle. Such was the essential message of MLK.
MLK understood that oppressors and the oppressed share the same destiny. The struggle for the freedom for African Americans could not be separated from the freedom of those whites who oppress them. He urged understanding. “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
MLK pled for courage and hope. “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.” He challenged us all to dream of things and ask why not. He had the audacity to dream like John Kennedy, who during his visit in Ireland two months before the March said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”. It is true John Kennedy was not present at the March on Washington.
MLK had “a dream” for all Americans despite living daily the nightmare of racism, segregation, inequality and indignity. He had “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” His “American dream” was “a dream that one day [America] will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” It was a dream about the “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners” sitting “down together at the table of brotherhood.” It was a dream about states “sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression” being “transformed into oasis of freedom and justice.” It was a dream about his “four little children one day living in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It was a dream about brotherhood, sisterhood and childhood where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
MLK also had hope, not only dreams. He wanted to “go back to the South” with “faith” that “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope, transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” He had an abiding “faith” that Americans “will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” He believed that we are “all God’s children”. He proclaimed to the world, “let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire… the curvaceous slopes of California… and hill and molehill of Mississippi…” He saw freedom as inevitable and foreordained by the Almighty, unstoppable by any human force or agency.
MLK’s dreamed of creating the “Beloved Community” out of the nightmare of the triple evils
MLK’s dream was ultimately about creating the “Beloved Community”. He said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” MLK’s Beloved Community is a society free of racism, poverty and militarism. It is a community of love and justice where brotherhood and sisterhood founded on the principle of compassion and caring define the meaning of social life. For MLK, the evil of poverty has a thousand faces. Poverty is visible in the lives of the unemployed, the homeless, the hungry, the dispossessed and those consigned to the ghettoes. “There is nothing new about poverty,” said MLK. “What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.” What is lacking is not resources but basic compassion and caring by those who have the means to eradicate poverty. It is their indifference that makes poverty so destructive. “It is not only poverty that torments the Negro; it is the fact of poverty amid plenty.”
MLK understood that racism with its ideology of racial superiority, inferiority and domination was not only wrong but also a violation of God’s law. He believed all humans were “God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.” They must free themselves by “joining hands and singing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
MLK opposed all forms of violence and militarism in its varied manifestations. He opposed the Vietnam War much to the dismay of President Lyndon Johnson who felt personally betrayed by MLK. “Somehow this madness must cease,” said MLK. “We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam.”
MLK believed only nonviolence and love had the power to break the unending cycle of violence and create lasting peace through reconciliation. Love restores community, hate destroys it. MLK had a complex understanding of “love”. He was not talking about romantic love (eros), nor was he talking about “affection between friends” (philia). Hi s idea of love is captured in what he termed “agape”, which is “love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.” Agape is the practice of what Jesus taught, “Love thy enemy.” Agape is the core value of MLK’s “Beloved Community” where “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That is why MLK insisted, Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Nonviolence is the means by which we achieve the “Beloved Community”. MLK said “nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
MLK taught about the “Six Principles of Nonviolence” and the use of love for nonviolent social change.” One must first accept the principle that nonviolence is a way of life. It is the preferred weapon in confronting the forces of injustice by awakening the conscience of people by appealing to their higher selves. The aim of nonviolent social change is not the destruction of the “enemy” but reconciliation through higher moral understanding. The nonviolent path to social change requires us to act against evil deeds and not the person committing them. We should focus on conditions, laws, policies and practices that perpetuate injustice, not the color, race, ethnicity, religion of the perpetrator. In seeking nonviolent change, one must accept suffering without retaliation because theer is redemption in suffering.
One must live out the six principles in practice, not just talk about them. In using nonviolence as a means of social change one must first ascertain facts. That requires gathering of information about the particular problem in the community, identifying the range of options available and determining when to optimally apply pressure. It is necessary to educate and prepare leaders who are not only dedicated to the cause but also knowledgeable about the issues so that they can teach and inform the community. This requires educating neighbors, relatives, friends, co-workers, community groups and others of the actual problems in the community.
One who is committed to nonviolent social change must make a personal commitment for a long term nonviolent campaign. The aim of a nonviolent campaign is to persuade one’s opponent of the justice of one’s cause, not to destroy or humiliate one’s opponent. In simple terms, the aim is to make a friend and a partner out of an enemy. One must also develop the skills of negotiation to reconcile viewpoints and arrive at a just resolution. Ultimately, the nonviolent social agent must be prepared to take direct nonviolent action when negotiations do not produce a just outcome. Such action could include street demonstrations to economic boycotts and beyond.
Reconciliation is the ultimate outcome of a nonviolent social struggle. MLK said, “The end of nonviolent social change is “reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Living the dream
MLK’s dream is not about an imaginary utopia. It is also not about “hero worship” and giving lip service to lofty ideas. MLK’s dream is about having each individual help create a real flesh and blood “Beloved Community” in America and elsewhere. America does not have a monopoly on its creed that “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Those words written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 in the American Declaration of Independence now belong to the entire human family because those truths are “endowed by the Creator” so that all humans have the “unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
MLK’s dream has come to pass in many ways. The March on Washington became a turning point in the civil rights movement and led to the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other legislation. Much progress has been made in America over the past five decades. Countless millions have come from every corner of the world seeking the “American dream”. But we would be foolishly selfish and sorely mistaken if we believe that our individual pursuit of the American dream has any meaning at all when millions of our fellow Americans can only dream about the American dream. It is not about individual success and achievement in the Promise Land. As MLK said, what we should know and strive for is “that we, as a people, get to the promised land.” It is really about what we as individual human beings do to make our corner of the earth a Promise Land. We must all do our part, however small or large. MLK said, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” I shall continue to strive towards terminal “creative maladjustment”.
We shall overcome…
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
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