Martin Luther King's Flawed Dream

By Wortham, Anne | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview
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Martin Luther King's Flawed Dream

Wortham, Anne, The World and I

Annually, throughout the month of February, known as Black History Month, Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice punctuates the airwaves like a public-service announcement, delivering his "I Have a Dream' speech at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C.

What listeners usually hear is the speech's rousing "Let freedom ring!" finale, which begins with King's invocation of the patriotic hymn "America" and ends with the vision of

the day when alt 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!"

Although this climax receives the most airplay and seems to be most often included in film documentaries, it is the preceding "Dream" sequence that is most often quoted. King told a quarter of a million people at the Lincoln Memorial that "even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."


The rhetorical flourish that followed, in which he wished that his children "will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," was but an abbreviated portrayal of his vision of the Beloved Community.

Three years earlier, in a speech he delivered on the golden anniversary of the National Urban League and which appeared in the December 1960 issue of the YWCA Magazine, he presented his most succinct conception of the dream, as follows:

The dream is one of equality of

opportunity, of privilege and

property widely distributed; a

dream of a land where men will

not take necessities from the

many to give luxuries to the

few; a dream of a land where

men do not argue that the color

of a man's skin determines the

content of his character; a

dream of a place where all our

gifts and resources are held not

for ourselves alone but as

instruments of service for the

rest of humanity; the dream of

a country where every man will

respect the dignity and worth

of all human personality and

men will dare to live together

as brothers--that is the dream.

Whenever it is fulfilled, we will

emerge from the bleak and desolate

midnight of man's inhumanity

to man into the bright

and glowing daybreak of freedom

and justice for all of God's


King's dream was "no private vision, nothing esoteric," observes biographer William Robert Miller in Martin Luther King, Jr: His Life, Martyrdom, and Meaning for the World (1968). Rather, it was "a personalized translation of the American heritage taught to every schoolboy, forged anew in a context of the Negro experience."

The words of the speech, which invoked the patriotic symbolism of the Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg Address, and Emancipation Proclamation, "came right out of elementary school civics," Miller concludes. Indeed, as King stated in the Washington speech and asserted several years later, in the May 1968 issue of Negro History Bulletin,

It is a dream of a land

where men of all races,

of all nationalities and

of all creeds can live

together as brothers.

The substance of the

dream is expressed in

these sublime words,

words lifted to cosmic

proportions: "We hold

these truths to be self-evident--that

all men

are created with

inalienable fights; that

among these are life,

liberty, and the pursuit

of happiness.

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