Martin Luther King's 'dream,' Barack Obama's challenge

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech transfixed white America. But as Keith Boag writes — and as the tens of thousands who recreated that historic march on Washington this week attested — the battle for civil rights in the U.S. is by no means over.

'Tell them about the dream, Martin' — Mahalia Jackson

The Rev. Martin Luther King addressing a crowd estimated at 250,000 near the Lincoln Memorial on Washington's National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963. His soaring, 'I have a dream' rhetoric, it turns out, was mostly ad libbed. (Associated Press)

It's unlikely we would remember Martin Luther King as the defining speaker of the March on Washington 50 years ago today had he stuck only to the written text that lay before him.

We do know that for 11 minutes he recited, exactly, that speech. And it was pedestrian.

It was a speech about hardship, injustice, grievance and resentment. All of it true, but delivered in language that was deliberately cold and transactional, not uplifting.

America had "defaulted" on its "promissory note" of inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all men, he said. The country had given the Negro a "bad check" that had been returned from "the Bank of Justice" marked "insufficient funds."

Even an admirer remembered it as a "clanking, dissonant metaphor."

King knew most whites had never before heard him give an entire speech. He also knew that what he'd said so far did not have the ring of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, as he had hoped it would.

What's more, he was already running long. It was past time to wrap up.

The conclusion he saw in front of him read, "And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Dissatisfaction."

Good Lord. Horrible. He paused. Couldn't say it.

In that moment another voice called out to him.

"Tell them about the dream, Martin!"

It was Mahalia Jackson, King's favorite gospel singer, who'd performed earlier and who now stood in the crowd that encircled him.

"Tell them about the dream!" she said.

A sermon of optimism

Whether King heard her or had already decided on his new course, he now shifted gears, put his prepared speech to one side, and began to riff on familiar refrains that he had used to inspire black audiences and congregations elsewhere that summer.

"I say to you, my friends … even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream."

MLK's memory lives on, and not just in America. Here, Michelle Obama addresses students at the Martin Luther King Middle School in Dakar, Senegal, in June 2013. (Joe Penney / Reuters)

Finally he could let go with that deep rolling, pulpit voice for which he was famous in black America. No longer lecturing about grievance and injustice, he preached a soaring sermon of optimism rooted in scripture and patriotism.

Some would later say he switched from "white speech" to "black speech."

In any case, almost everything we remember from that address comes from those final extemporaneous lines, with their interwoven repetitions of "I have a dream … Let freedom ring … With this faith ..."

It was rhetorically uplifting, but also utterly incongruous with contemporary reality.

The black experience in America in 1963 did anything but inspire hope. It inspired fear.

And this was true especially in the South where, for years, blacks trying to register to vote could be jailed, beaten and, in the case of Herbert Lee, murdered in broad daylight by a Mississippi state legislator.

Those lucky enough to get a voter registration form often had to then prove their literacy and pass a civics exam that might ask such mischievous questions as "how many bubbles are on a bar of soap?"

Separate washrooms, separate water fountains, "whites only" hotels and lunch counters. Every aspect of daily life was constructed to rob black men, women and children of their dignity.

A right to be angry

But it was the violence directed at the civil rights movement that was making the world recoil in shock, and wonder how this could happen in America.

The march itself was partly a response to the vicious attacks on black children who had marched against segregation in Birmingham, Ala., a few months earlier.

Hundreds of children were washed down Birmingham's streets with fire hoses, set upon by dogs and locked up by orders of the head of police and fire protection, the notorious racist, "Bull" Connor.

Outside the South, a horrified America watched it all on television.

So, no wonder Washington braced for the march as it did.

The sale of alcohol was banned for the first time since prohibition. The White House deployed 4,000 riot troops near the downtown with 15,000 paratroopers on alert.

President John Kennedy himself warned the organizers of the march against creating "an atmosphere of intimidation."

Behind all of that, of course, was the realization among whites that blacks did indeed have something to be angry about. What kind of mood other than angry could they possibly be in when they finally arrived in Washington?

But, instead, everything was peaceful. The spirit of the march was unifying. Among the thousands of black faces there were many white ones, some of them famous: Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Bob Dylan.

King's speech offered an ideal of freedom and justice that would be embraced by blacks and whites, by the civil rights' movement, and then the women's movement, and later by gays and lesbians.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did not take the message so enthusiastically. After the speech he approved a directive that branded King "the most dangerous Negro" in America, and heightened the FBI's wiretapping campaign to try to prove to the Kennedys that King was a philanderer and a Communist.

Are we there yet?

The 1963 March on Washington is credited with gathering support for the landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But the future would not really have many bright moments and King later said his dream had been replaced by a nightmare.

Are we there yet? Tens of thousands of black and white Americans recreated the 1963 march on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, in Washington. The issues this time: racial profiling by police, state changes to voting rights legislation and the Trayvon Martin case. (Reuters)

Just 18 days after the march a bomb placed below the steps of a Birmingham church killed four black girls aged 11 to 14.

There was a succession of race riots across the country — Harlem 1964, Watts 1965, among them — and King himself was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. He was 39.

The night before the shooting King gave a speech that foreshadowed his own death while repeating that all the sacrifice would prove worthwhile.

God had allowed him "to go up to the mountain," he said, "And he's allowed me to look over. And I've seen the promised land. I might not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, we will get to the promised land."

So are we there yet?

King's implicit linking of himself to Moses, who sees the promised land but does not get there, led Barack Obama, at the outset of his campaign for the presidency in 2007, to compare himself with Joshua who was sent by Moses to explore the promised land and who then conquered it.

For Obama, riffing on "the Joshua Generation" theme was his way of acknowledging that he stood on the shoulders of greatness.

But he was also suggesting that his generation could speak of having made it.

There is no doubt that America is a different place today. To say otherwise is to diminish the hatefulness and horror of the institutionalized racism of 1960s Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and so on.

So, yes, a better America today, but perhaps not the promised land.

The disparities between white and black education systems, incomes, crime rates, incarceration rates and many other things testify to the continued and deeply entrenched inequalities of the African-American experience.

And Obama knows all that.   Still, it took the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17 year-old in Florida, and the trial and acquittal of his killer earlier this year, to really pull from Obama his most personal feelings about race in America.

"Trayvon Martin could have been me," he said, and then listed some ways in which, at times in his life, he has felt the reflexive bigotry of racial profiling.

But he also said this:

"Things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. Doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. Doesn't mean racism has been eliminated.

"But, you know, when I talk to [daughters] Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they're better than we are. They're better than we were on these issues." 

His views were an echo of King's deepest faith: "The arc of the moral universe is long. But it bends toward justice."