When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his world-altering “I have a dream” speech to the March on Washington, on August 28, 1963, he spoke the creed and fiber of a diverse and aspirational nation. It was, importantly, the first time that creed had been so vocally and so deliberately laid before the world.
King knew that in the soul of every citizen committed to American democracy, there was a fundamental aspiration to achieve that great good ideal: a nation in which raw power could not override the healing dynamics of democracy, a civilization connected to all human struggle, but in the best way, in that way that rescues the innocent and allows the righteous to lead, without fear.
King also knew that the biggest obstacle to achieving the dream for which he demanded universal attention—the dream of universal equality in opportunity, in law and in civic manners, without bias against any race, faith or culture—was the willingness of so many people to live the terrible contradiction that destroys democracy from within: to want democracy, and to want it to be exclusive.
The speech echoes with this understanding, and the moment continues to be one of the most significant in the nation’s history, perhaps in the history of human civilization itself, because King spoke to all people, everywhere, without prejudice and without fear. He exhibited the ecumenism and humanity he demanded, and he declared with unabashed passion that no better dream was possible.
The speech also did something vitally important for the culture of American democracy: it situated this lofty dream, never before—as far as we know—realized in any culture anywhere, not at the zenith of American success and influence, but at the foundation. He reminded all Americans that the United States could not truly be great unless it could first give liberty to all its people.
With the benefit of hindsight, the genius of that is familiar to us. But in the moment when Rev. King spoke those words, that particular self-evident truth was in many ways a taboo, hardly ever spoken and subject to endless naysaying in mainstream political culture. At last, it had been said before all the world: in their hearts, Americans know that this contradiction cripples the Republic.
King mentioned the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued by Abraham Lincoln—whose memorial stood directly behind the civil rights leader as he spoke—one hundred years earlier, in 1863. Lincoln was absolutely one of the great achievers in moving American democracy forward, so it meant a lot that a century later, African Americans remained in many ways bonded by prejudice and hate-based violence.
The March on Washington called for “jobs and freedom” and succeeded, in part, because it established an irrefutable truth: that both economic opportunity and personal freedom were severely constrained for a large number of American citizens, for reasons that ran contrary to the founding ideals of the nation.
We can all recognize that tremendous progress has been made since 1963, in building a more genuinely open democracy, where race does not determine one’s place in society. But, we cannot say that the Republic has come through with all that is owed to those marginalized by hatred, systemic violence and political bigotry.
It remains true that far too many people start their lives in conditions of less opportunity, partly owing to their race or ethnicity, or to socio-economic driving factors that limit their ability to move forward. It remains true that far too many people struggle to slip those bonds and enjoy a life and livelihood based on their talents, their character, their merit.
If we are honest, no one should be limited to a life of less opportunity or of more likely judicial persecution, due to the color of their skin, and yet every analysis of our current system seems to show overarching systemic bias. We can do better, and we will do better, but even as we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy, we must remember to notice and oppose efforts to marginalize minority voters, or to roll back civil rights gains.
We must recognize, and oppose, the oppression of political, ethnic and racial minorities, and seek to honor past and future generations, and Dr. King’s dream, by being as true to the values of real democracy as we can be. It is well past time to be unsure of how to make sure we do not discriminate against anyone based on race, and yet, we are still learning, as a culture, how to make sure we do not.
The sooner we get there, the better and brighter our future will be.