Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech had a grace and a power that elevated it to an untouchable place in American history. But is it possible that, in one sense, King’s words were too powerful?
Today, 50 years later, Americans who have lived and grown up with those words commemorate the anniversary of the March on Washington. No one can deny that we live in a world different from that of 1963. It is now literally true that, even in Alabama, little black boys and black girls are able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. That does not mean that America has fully eliminated or even confronted racism. It just marks how far we have moved forward; it does not measure how much further we have to go.
Still, it is not unjustified to feel that this country has responded to the logic and sentiment of King’s speech, and the speeches and deeds of countless others in the Civil Rights Movement, and that the March on Washington for Freedom, as exemplified by the “I Have a Dream” speech, has in some large measure realized its goals.
Except. It was not called the “March on Washington for Freedom”. It was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”. And from its inception, as envisioned by labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, it was meant to focus on jobs – on the need to eliminate economic equality and to provide meaningful employment opportunities. The additional emphasis on freedom was added later, as groups like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were brought into the organization of the March.
It was natural for Randolph, as vice-president of the AFL-CIO, to target jobs. But the other March organizers, including King, Bayard Rustin, and National Urban League president Whitney Young, were also more pragmatic than idealistic. They recognized that the key to prosperity and fulfillment was the meaningful availability of employment – the ability for black men and women to pursue whatever kind work they chose with the same opportunities that everyone else in the country had. In a 1963 world in which innumerable social, legal, and institutional obstacles confronted African-Americans in their pursuit of rewarding work, it only made sense to focus specifically on the pursuit of policies that would cut away these obstacles. What good is the freedom to ride at the front of the bus if you can’t afford the bus fare?
This need for and right to equality of opportunity still exists and always will exist, not just for African-Americans, but for everyone: for women; for the poor; for other ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities; even for those who usually enjoy such equality or better. It is part of what gives us the freedom to be who we really are, and to be happy and fulfilled with that. It is something we will always need to fight for, for ourselves and for all Americans, if we really are committed to figuring out fulfillment.
Today, 50 years later, Americans can look back and feel justifiably proud as they consider the “I Have a Dream” speech, though many will feel just as justifiably chagrined at the work that remains. But even King would not have wanted that speech to take up all the mental and cultural space we, as a nation, reserve for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Today, let us also keep in mind that, as with freedom, any opportunity we deny to others may eventually be denied to ourselves. And let us be inspired by The March not just to promote the pursuit of fulfillment by all Americans, but to cherish, and not to take for granted, our own career opportunities and dreams.