The Misremembering of ‘I Have a Dream’
It is implausible to imagine that, were King to be raised from the dead, he would look at America’s jails, unemployment lines, soup kitchens or inner-city schools and think his life’s work had been accomplished. Whether one believes that these inequalities are caused by individuals making bad choices or by institutional discrimination, it would be absurd to claim that such a world bears any resemblance to the one King set out to create.
Nor is there anything to suggest that view would have been much altered by the presence of a black man in the White House. The claim that Obama’s election has a connection to King’s legacy has some substance. As Obama himself has often conceded, his election would not have been possible without the civil rights movement, which created the conditions that allowed for the arrival of a new generation of black politicians. But the aim of the civil rights movement was equality for all, not the elevation of one.
There’s no questioning the symbolic value of electing a black president. Yet the fact remains that African-Americans are no better off materially as a result, even if they may have been worse off had he lost, and that the economic gap between blacks and whites has grown under his presidency. The ascent of America’s first black president has coincided with the descent of black Americans’ standard of living. Reasonable people may disagree on the extent to which Obama is responsible for that. But the fact is undeniable.
Symbols should not be dismissed as insubstantial, but they should not be mistaken as substance either. The presence of underrepresented people in leadership positions only has any significantly positive meaning if it challenges whatever obstacles created the conditions for that underrepresentation. To believe otherwise is to trade equal opportunities for photo opportunities, whereby a system looks different but acts the same.
In the final analysis, to ask whether King’s dream has been realized is to misunderstand both his overall politics and the specific ambition of his speech. King was not the kind of activist who pursued a merely finite agenda. The speech in general, and the dream sequence in particular, are utopian. Standing in the midst of a nightmare, King dreamed of a better world where historical wrongs had been righted and good prevailed. That is why the speech means so much to me, and why I believe that, overall, it has stood the test of time.
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I was raised in Britain during the Thatcher years, at a time when idealism was mocked and “realism” became an excuse for capitulation to the “inevitability” of unbridled market forces and military aggression. To oppose that agenda was regarded, by some on the left as well as the right, as impractical and unrealistic. Realism has no time for dreamers.
True, we can’t live on dreams alone. But the absence of utopian ideas leaves us without a clear ideological and moral center and therefore facing a void in which politics is deprived of any liberatory potential and reduced to only what is feasible at any given moment.
In the summer of 1963, with a civil rights bill pending and the white population skittish, King could have limited his address to what was immediately achievable and pragmatic. He might have spelled out a ten-point plan, laid out his case for tougher legislation, or made the case for fresh campaigns of civil disobedience in the North. He could have reduced himself to an appeal for what was possible in a time when what was possible and pragmatic was neither satisfactory nor sustainable.
Instead, he swung for the bleachers. Not knowing whether building the world he was describing was a Sisyphean task or merely a Herculean one, he called out in the political wilderness, hoping his voice would someday be heard by those with the power to act on it. In so doing, he showed it is not naïve to believe that what is not possible in the foreseeable future may nonetheless be necessary, worth fighting for and worth articulating. The idealism that underpins his dream is the rock on which our modern rights are built and the flesh on which pragmatic parasites feed. If nobody dreamed of a better world, what would there be to wake up to?
Ari Berman writes that, fifty years after King’s historic march, the struggle for racial justice faces unprecedented challenges.