As he reached the end of his remarks in front of the huge crowd King and began to improvise, the answer came in a woman’s voice. The iconic gospel queen Mahalia Jackson shouted over the crowd: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
He did. Like an oratorical jazz musician he smoothly segued into an improvised version of the “dream” refrain that he had used to great effect in speeches earlier that year. It has since come to define King’s entire career in our collective memory, especially this often-quoted line: “I have a dream that my four little 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.”
Conservatives in particular like to quote that line to argue against any social policies or programs that would take race into account. Yet using King’s “dream” to argue against race-based remedies is almost as intellectually dishonest as quoting Lincoln to argue in favor of slavery.
When King talks earlier his speech, for example, about the “promissory note” that the founders wrote in this nation’s founding documents, he wasn’t talking about a used car loan.
To see King’s agenda detailed on that special day 50 years ago you have to turn to the organizing manual for the march. It listed 10 demands. Seven concerned issues of racial discrimination that were fulfilled in the civil rights, voting rights and fair housing legislation that President Lyndon Johnson would sign into law -- with strong Republican support, by the way, to get past stiff resistance from Southern segregationist Democrats.
Southern conservatives have since found a new home in the party of Abraham Lincoln. Political history is full of ironies.
Yet three of the march’s 10 demands concerned economic issues that remain timely today and not just for African Americans: A raise in the national minimum wage, an expansion of the Fair Labor Standards Act and “a massive federal program to train and place all workers -- Negro and white -- on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.”
Conservatives on talk radio and cable TV praise King’s memory today. But if he were still around, I imagine they would be accusing him of waging “class warfare” and “playing the race card.” Names change but the political game stays the same.
E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.