The Misremembering of ‘I Have a Dream’
The country’s acceptance of King came with its eventual consensus—won through mass marches, civil disobedience and grassroots activism—that codified segregation had to end. “America was like a dysfunctional drug addict or alcoholic that was addicted, dependent on racial segregation,” says Clarence Jones, who wrote the draft text of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “It had tried other treatments and failed. Then comes along Martin Luther King with his multistep program—recovery, nonviolence, civil disobedience and integration—and forces America to publicly confront its conscience. And that recovery program enabled America to embark on the greatest political transformation in history.”
By the time white Americans realized that their dislike of King was spent and futile, he had created a world in which admiring him was in their own self-interest. They embraced him because, in short, they had no choice.
The only question remaining was what version of King should be honored. To remember him now as a leader who sought greater government intervention to help the poor, or who branded the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” as he did at Riverside Church in 1967, would sacrifice posterity for accuracy. He did stand for those things. But those issues, particularly at a time of war and economic crisis, remain live, divisive and urgent. To associate him with them would not raise him above the fray but insert him into it, leaving him as controversial in death as in life.
But remembering him as the man who spoke eloquently and forcefully against codified segregation presents him as an accordant figure whose principled stand rescued the nation in a moment of crisis.
“The speech is profoundly and willfully misunderstood,” says King’s longtime friend Vincent Harding, who drafted the Riverside Church speech. “People take the parts that require the least inquiry, the least change, the least work. Our country has chosen what they consider to be the easier way to work with King. They are aware that something very powerful was connected to him, and he was connected to it. But they are not ready to really take on the kind of issues he was raising even there.”
Instead, the country has chosen to remember a version of “I Have a Dream” that not only undermines King’s legacy but also tells an inaccurate story about the speech itself. King made explicit reference in his oration to both the limits of legal remedy and the need for economic redress to confront the consequences of centuries of second-class citizenship.
“One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” he said (emphasis mine). “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
“We refuse to believe,” he said later in the speech, “that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
No reasonable reading of this can limit King’s vision to just that of doing away with Jim Crow. Only by willfully conflating codified segregation with racism, and ignoring not just what King had said elsewhere but also the ample contrary evidence in the speech, could one claim he was arguing that the answer to America’s racial problems lay in merely changing the law.
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