The Content of Our Character: 40 Years After His Speech
- Thursday, August 28, 2003
"I have a dream," declared Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he addressed a crowd of several hundred thousand gathered on the Mall around the Washington Monument. The date was August 28, 1963, and America was a cauldron of social unrest.
Civil rights leaders had called for the March on Washington in order to force the nation to deal with the so-called "race problem." As the event drew to a close, all eyes were on the final speaker. The crowd standing in Washington's sweltering heat waited for the man they knew would be the "closer" of the event.
Most Americans recognized the name, face, and voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. He had appeared on the nation's front pages and news broadcasts, having led major protests and movements in Montgomery, Birmingham, and other cities. And yet, King was an enigma to many white Americans. What would he say?
Interestingly, the most famous words of his speech were not included in his manuscript. King had arrived in Washington the day before and had prepared his speech in a room at the famous Willard Hotel. In The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, author Drew D. Hansen provides a parallel text of Dr. King's manuscript and his actual words. When he reached the pinnacle of his oratory, King simply departed from his prepared text and launched his speech into history.
"I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."
Dr. King spoke of a dream "that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood." More personally, "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. I have a dream today."
In the midst of a nation torn by racial strife and social unrest, Dr. King painted an indelible picture of America as it could be and should be. His oratory was soaring, his imagery was vivid, and his cause was right. His cadences, inflections, and biblical allusions gave the speech its memorable structure. His powerful argument gave the speech its moral weight. The speech is as much a part of our national memory as Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Speaking to a generation poised to reject the American dream as a lie, Dr. King challenged them to make it their own. He rejected claims that American could never be reformed or called to its moral senses.
We do well to look back to 1963 and remember the reality. In the South, Jim Crow laws enforced segregation. Separate motels, restaurants, schools, and water fountains marked the moral landscape. In the North, the absence of Jim Crow laws did not mean that the races were integrated. North and South, black and white Americans inhabited different worlds. African-Americans were routinely denied access to accommodations, higher education, and the voting booth.
Those standing on the nation's Mall that day could not have known that years of struggle, frustration, violence, and tragedy lay ahead. Observing America in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "I do not imagine that the white and black race will ever live in any country upon an equal footing. But I believe the difficulty to be still greater in the United States than elsewhere." His words proved an understatement.
Obstructionists attempted to block racial progress at every turn. Some white Americans just could not abide the idea of racial equality and full integration. On the other hand, Stanford University professor Shelby Steele traces how many of the civil rights leaders traded moral consciousness for racial consciousness, and abandoned the vision of racial equality for identity politics.
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