I went to YouTube to watch Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The first two results that come up are very interesting. The first is a video, just under 7 minutes long, that contains all the phrases we remember because we’ve heard them replayed every third Monday in January and read them every February in history class:
“I have a dream today…”
“…Not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
“…Little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls”
“Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last!”
But it was the second video that I was actually looking for. The second video is 17 minutes long. It contains the whole speech, not just the second half that we’ve immortalized alongside the Gettysburg Address and JFK’s Inaugural Address as American scripture. Go ahead and watch it if you haven’t, or haven’t in a while:
It’s easy to see why this part of the speech has not been immortalized in the way that the latter portion is. King stutters slightly at one or two points. The speech doesn’t start with the hope that King eventually finds in his Dream. He decries “the shameful condition” that Black Americans find themselves in. King uses the language of economics and transactions. He describes the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution as “a promissory note” written to all Americans and accuses America of “defaulting” on this note vis-à-vis Black Americans: “America has given the Negro a bad check. A check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.”
The check metaphor is much less lofty than the language of dreams. But it’s also real, tangible, relatable. The ‘insufficient funds’ remark is one of the early moments of enthusiastic applause in the speech. His audience was feelin’ it. When he goes on to say that black America was refusing to accept this result and were coming to cash that check, he gets more applause and even laughter from the audience. This was not a speech for the history books. This was a speech for the hundreds of thousands of people in that crowd who were hopeful but also angry and tired. It was a speech for ordinary, hardworking Black men and women looking for an acknowledgement of their conditions and no longer patient to wait indefinitely for redress.
If the first part of the speech was too familiar to be canonized in the wider American consciousness, the middle part was too militant. It’s a confrontational speech. It’s demanding of immediate action and condemns “gradualism.” King reiterates nonviolence and warns against the “mistrust of all white people.”
But he also says “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.” When groups like Black Lives Matter stage die-ins or shut down busy streets, they’re not simply drawing upon the legacy of the Black Panthers or other groups that we remember as “radical.” They’re drawing upon the legacy of King:
And as we walk we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality….
And lest you think that it was only voting and segregation and violence that King and his companions were marching against, he goes on “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a Larger one.” We’re just getting back to the theme of economic justice in 2020, and even now the candidates of the Democratic Party are struggling and figuring out how to address the specific systemic inequalities that face black Americans.
It’s only after laying bare the many racial faults and injustices that existed in America in 1963, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation (and that, as of the year 2020, still exist), that King makes his pivot: “I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”
We’ve chosen to remember the Dream – it’s aspirational and comforting and pacific. But America, particularly white America, has forgotten (or, more accurately, chosen to forget) that dreams are only relevant in contrast to reality. King did not forget or ignore the reality. That day in Washington, D.C., he spent most of his speech laying out that reality, in order to show the starting point from which the journey to the Dream must start.
In the decades since then, unfortunately, the Dream has been excerpted from the reality and treated as if it were the reality. White conservatives ignore the reality, or relish in it (for some of them, at least, with their Confederate flags and “white nationalism” and reminiscing for a past when America was Great for them, King’s Dream is their nightmare). White liberals assert their agreement with the Dream as a substitute for action to achieve that Dream.
Black Americans, meanwhile, have not lost sight of the Dream but also remember the reality (we don’t really have the option of ignoring it). It’s currently that time of the election cycle where candidates start to make appeals to black (and brown) voters and think-pieces pop up about how the black vote will be crucial this time around, implying that this vote will be courted. There are some new things this time around. Reparations entered mainstream conversation in a way that had not been true for a long time. Platforms like “The Douglass Plan” put some specificity behind the promises of listening to Black Americans this time.
But the presidential field becomes increasingly white by the week. I was cynical in 2008 that America would elect a Black president, and I was ecstatic to be wrong. But I’m even more skeptical about the current commitments to addressing the real, deeply-rooted, systemic anti-black racism that Martin Luther King, Jr., like Frederick Douglass before him and the 1619 Project after him, pointed out in such stark terms. Again, I’d be happy to be proven wrong. And perhaps, if more people go back and listen to King’s entire speech (and, by extension, acknowledge his larger legacy and the full scope of his Dream), America could actually get around to cashing that check it wrote so long ago.