Thoughts & Views: King’s ‘Dream’ speech still relevant today


Given that Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday, we would do well to recall a mesmerizing talk by the Rev. Dr. King in the summer of 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

An estimated 250,000 attended the Aug. 28 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to hear King deliver the keynote speech.

It was quite a day: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sang protest songs; U.S. Rep. John Lewis, of Georgia, NAACP President Roy Wilkins and actor Charlton Heston (yes, the same man elected NRA president in 1998) spoke before King.

Only 17 minutes long – a far cry from today’s State of the Union message – even when replayed on a recording today – the “I Have a Dream” speech still resonates – as it must have with the listeners that day – with its powerful message against an equally dramatic backdrop of the Great Emancipator’s sculpture.

It has been 100 years since Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, King noted, and yet today, he said, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”

This is true, King said, despite America’s framers’ pledge to deliver “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all men, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”

Instead, King said, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Five years later, King organized a “Poor People’s Campaign,” that culminated in another march on D.C. where he called on the federal government to re-direct the billions being spent on the Vietnam War to help the economies of the poorest cities.

King’s plea for the disenfranchised of all races and creeds to rise together to enjoy the fruits of the promised land is as relevant as ever today, when many of the same injustices still apply.

Commentators like Tavis Smiley who have – to borrow his words – “writ large” on the subject of poverty in America – highlight today’s racial inequities across the social spectrum, whether it is income, jobs or education.

As noted by columnist Ryan P. Haygood, president/CEO of N.J. Institute for Social Justice, in Sunday’s Star-Ledger, as much as 80% of those holding jobs in Newark “do not live in the city.”

Despite more than $1 billion in completed and/or ongoing construction projects in the Brick City, Newark’s poverty rate among blacks stands at 33% vs. 21% for blacks statewide and 11% state-wide for everyone, according to a 2013 survey by Kaiser Family Foundation. In the same survey, Kaiser calculated a national poverty rate of 15% vs. 27% among blacks nationwide.

We have all heard or read about the police killings of young blacks in recent years in cities across the country and subsequent grand jury investigations with mixed results.

We know that some Southern states still appear to be making it tougher for blacks to cast ballots in elections.

And, in Cleveland, the Associated Press reported Sunday, a federal appeals court freed a black man after he served 12 years for a crime he did not commit but city authorities are looking to deny him a $13.2 million jury award on the grounds that the judgement was against the two homicide detectives who helped convict him, not the city. One of those detectives has declared bankruptcy, the city noted.

We have listened with interest to the campaign rhetoric offered up by the presidential candidates of both parties in hope of hearing sensible remedies to the still uncured ills cited by King more than four decades ago.

And we will continue to listen for those solutions.

If and when we hear them, we can then join Dr. King in saying:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” 

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