Today as our country marks Martin Luther King Day, an official national holiday, many think of his most famous oratory: his “I have a dream” speech which he delivered on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Perhaps the most famous excerpt is below:
So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 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.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood (….)
I have a dream that my four little 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 (….)
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
(You can read the entire text and hear a recording of Dr. King deliver the speech here.)
This speech has become iconic and inspired millions not only across America but across the globe. It is deep, profound, and stirring. This column can only scratch the surface of its meaning, but here are a few key points from the speech to ponder.
- It is deeply patriotic. Today many view love of country as old-fashioned at best or toxic at worst. Sadly, it seems many schools have played a hand in this. But look at Dr. King’s appeal to his audience: It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. He is not shying away from our Americanness; he is appealing to it.
- It celebrates American history. Today there is a pitched debate not only about what history to teach and how, but whether we even need to teach history at all. Some go so far as to say, “Why study history when all you need to do is Google something?” The recent revelations from The Twitter files should show us, don’t trust Big Tech to teach our history. A web search is only as good as the algorithms in place and the people who made them.
- It celebrates the biblical, Judeo-Christian ethic. In recent times, as discussed here, religious attendance is declining across the country. Some cheer that development, but we should ask: what will it be replaced by? King reminded his audience all men are created equal, which comes straight from the Declaration of Independence. And the action verb is “created,” not “evolved.” Plus, he quoted Isaiah 40:4-5. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. (To make a connection, that is also the text for one part of Handel’s incredible Messiah.) Years ago I saw a bumper sticker in Roanoke: “THE LAST TIME WE MIXED RELIGION AND POLITICS, PEOPLE GOT BURNED AT THE STAKE.” As I explained to my history students later, actually, “mixing religion and politics” got us Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, the university system, charities for the poor, high literacy rates, hospitals, and a whole lot more.
- It dreams of a color-blind society. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin (….) This is a key part of King’s speech. Don’t judge people by the amount of melanin in their epidermis, a trait that of course we are born with. Yet, as someone has pointed out, in many ways, American culture today is not color blind. It’s color-obsessed. Nowadays, some seriously tell us that “claiming to be color blind is actually racist.”
- It values judgment. The J-word gets a bad rap, but notice King’s vocabulary: not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. King is calling for the day when his children will be judged solely by their character, integrity, work ethic, honesty, and values. Right before writing this column, I read this post about Fairfax County Public Schools, one of the biggest and best-funded school districts in the nation. It refers to an “Equity-centered Strategic Planning” on September 20, 2022 at Falls Church, Virginia. The following language appears on page 25 of that workshop. “The Equity Imperative: Equitable Access, Equal Outcomes Equitable access to resources and opportunities that guarantee fair, just, and affirming experiences and produce equal outcomes for every student, without exception (emphasis added).” So there you go: “equal outcomes for every student!” Logically, that means: no judgment, no grading, no differentiation, no individuality, no effort. No matter what you do, all students will get equal outcomes. Schools used to have “No child left behind.” This sounds like “No child too far ahead.”
If Dr. King were alive today, no doubt he would see some aspects of his Dream having come true since the 1960s. However, regarding the loud voices denigrating love of country, religion, the study of history, color-blindness, integrity, and effort, would King find that a dream? Or a nightmare?