'I Have a Dream' is MLK's most quoted speech, particularly the parts talking about 'content of character.' Ironically, these words are often used to undermine some of the advancements for which the Civil Rights movement worked so hard. They're used to suggest that race doesn't matter as long as we are kind and nonjudgmental to one another.
This would perhaps be true if our society had indeed arrived at a state of universal racial equality. Unfortunately, many of the struggles that precipitated the March of Washington persist today, having simply been driven underground into less overt forms.
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Indeed, in her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander observes that more African Americans are under correctional control today (prison, jail, probation, or parole) than were enslaved in 1850. Similarly, more African American men are disenfranchised today than in 1869, the year before the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified.
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The Unfinished Business
of the March on Washington
But rather than resting on our 'Better than Jim Crow' laurels, their work is encouragement for we who benefit from their sacrifice. We are not to let go of the dream. We're not to forgo the protections that have been put in place. We must still strive to change a world in which innocent black boys are murdered, and church doors say 'for whites only.'
The following is a much less often quoted portion of MLK's famous speech that is still salient today:
"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. 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. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children."
On this anniversary week, set aside a moment to read the entirety of MLK's 'I Have a Dream' speech. Indeed, take time to read some of his other work as well and ponder how many of his words still ring true for us today.