Today marks the 50th anniversary of the great “March on Washington” and its vivid demonstration of a public passion for racial justice that had been welling up for 10 years in what we know as the civil rights movement.
Sung and unsung heroes had prayed and marched, risked their lives and given their lives to a cause long obstructed by powerful forces of cultural preservation.
This day in 1963 saw a galvanizing of a mood that would not be turned back by intimidation or political maneuvering. The force that would change a nation was making its voice clear. It was one of those turning points in our history after which things would not be the same.
The most memorable feature of that gathering (though certainly not the only significant one) was the powerful and prophetic piece of oratory we know as MLK Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
It has taken its place among the speeches that have defined our highest ideals. We will no doubt hear it again today, and it is certainly worth a careful re-reading by young and old alike.
Beyond the inspirational power of its call to embrace an alternative vision to counter the practices of alienation and separation that prevented so many Americans from having a place at the table of opportunity, the speech has something to teach us about the content of the American dream itself.
What is still evident 50 years later is that there remain two visions of that dream competing to guide our lives.
Prevalent references to the “dream” in public conversation tend to focus on the attainment of the fruits of success – home ownership, long-term security, various luxuries and perks of privilege.
Whether it results from a rigorous work ethic that is rewarded with well-earned success or from a short cut such as winning a lottery, the American dream is easily thought of as something for “me and mine” and usually in the form of material prosperity.
One doesn’t have to listen long to today’s political rhetoric to hear this version of the dream held up as the goal of life. The attainment and protection of privilege is offered as a guiding principle of public policy and practice.
It is not uncommon to hear a reasonably wealthy candidate for public office say or imply, “I want my children and grandchildren to be able to live the American dream as I have.”
To this vision of the dream the prophet spoke (and speaks): “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 soaring eloquence of the “I have a dream” section of the speech, which aides reported was not a part of his original manuscript, can easily distract from the significance of the dream’s content.
It is a dream of true equality of opportunity, of justice, fairness and respect for all people, of community where compassion and concern for a common good surpass the drive for power and privilege, and where a commitment to the well-being of others – all others – is as strong as the desire for extra benefits for oneself.
In 1963, the dream was about racial justice in voting rights, housing, public accommodations, education and economic opportunity; its call was for a nation to use its public power as a tool to help bring about that justice.
Now, 50 years later, the dream would still envision justice, though the issues would be more numerous and more complex. Health care, immigration, the crippling poverty of a widening affluence gap, religious and political extremism – these are still in need of wise and courageous commitment.
“I have a dream today.” The refrain still echoes across the half century. And the words that follow speak of a dream that is about community, justice, integrity of character rather than skin color or pedigree as well as opportunity for all to have unfettered access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness promised in the founding vision of the nation.
The choice between the two versions of the American dream still remains. They both reflect virtues that have value for our health as a society.
Which one we embrace as the guiding vision for our personal and collective life will determine the kind of future we build for our children and grandchildren.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.