By Paul M. Gaston
Vol. 25, No. 1-4, 2003 pp. 6-7
Forty years ago, a quarter of a million Americans came to Washington in a march for jobs and freedom. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech, the riveting highlight of the occasion, began with a prediction that the day would “go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” And so it did.
Now at its fortieth anniversary, the March on Washington is being commemorated all over the world, putting me in mind once more of the warning flag the southern writer James Agee hoisted many years ago. “The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor,” he wrote. “Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.”
Strong language. Vintage Agee. And, like most sweeping generalizations, it obscures some truths as it illuminates the big ones. Furious struggles for liberty are not universally robbed of their power to inspire; but they are routinely appropriated to serve other agendas and ambitions.
King’s “Dream” speech has become especially vulnerable. For one thing, it has been used to turn the Civil Rights Movement into yet another example of the heroic and dramatic story of American democracy. His dream, he said, was “deeply rooted in the American dream.” And so the Civil Rights Movement, as it swept away segregation and disfranchisement, came to be understood as a heroic and dramatic example of the self-corrective nature of America’s unique democracy. One can hear Agee warning us to see that this is “the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.”
For many white Americans, probably most of them, the Civil Rights Movement’s success in dismantling Jim Crow was proof that their nation could reform itself to get on with the business of making the American dream possible for all. It affirmed their need to believe in the essential beneficence of the American republic. It echoed their belief that racism could be excised from the body politic without altering the structure of their society. It vindicated their faith in the unique superiority of their country.
This was not Martin King speaking. Those who thought it was missed his meaning. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he said it was necessary to move beyond the reformist tactics of the previous decade. The abolition of segregation and the acquisition of the right to vote were important but they were not the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, not ends in themselves. The meaning of freedom, he was to say often, reached far beyond those building blocks.
“We must recognize,” he said, “that we can’t solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” Among other things, this would require facing the truth that “the dominant ideology” of America was not “freedom and equality” with racism “just an occasional departure from the norm.” Racism was woven into the fabric of the country, intimately linked to capitalism and militarism. They were all “tied together,” he said, “and you really can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the others.” What was required was “a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society.”
That phrase–“a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society”–was not uttered in the “Dream” speech of 1963. The time was not right for it. The Jim Crow shackles had to be smashed first. But the phrase carries the essential message and embodies the enduring legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.–and it is a message virtually air brushed from history. His radical critique was drowned out from the beginning by angry White House rejections, white fear of the Black Power movement, escalating riots in Northern cities, and liberal integrationists’ continuing loyalty to their reformist principles of contained social change. Even before the reaction of the Nixon Administration set in, the King who would remake the “architecture of American society” was absent from school books, anniversary celebrations, and political oratory. Julian Bond had it right when he wrote that ‘We do not honor the critic of capitalism, or the pacifist who declared all wars evil, or the man of God who argued that a nation that chose guns over butter would starve its people and kill itself….We honor an antiseptic hero.”
This antiseptic hero was the product of the whole culture, a culture innocently unable to imagine itself as fundamentally flawed. The right-wing assault on civil rights over the last generation, however, has been anything but innocent. It has appropriated King himself as its
ally in rolling back the things for which he and his comrades stood, fixing on the “Dream” speech as its primary text. King’s “My dream is deeply rooted in the American dream” statement is interpreted to discredit his radicalism; and his hope for the day when people would be judged “by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin” is enlisted in the battle against all legislation and programs that might help to undo the effects of three and a half centuries of racial exclusion and exploitation.
Pundits and politicians of the right, lavishly supported by an ever-increasing number of think tanks, have fixed on, and shamelessly distorted, these two fragments. George Will, conceding the existence of continuing poverty and disadvantage, explains them as the “terrible price” blacks have been made to pay “for the apostasy of today’s civil rights leaders from the original premise of the Civil Rights Movement.” That premise, he declares, was that “race must not be a source of advantage or disadvantage.”
Will’s fellow journalist Rush Limbaugh wonders how “the vision that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had for a color-blind society has been perverted by modern liberalism.” Newt Gingrich and Ward Connerly, blasting what they call “the failure of racial preferences,” conjure up King’s “heartfelt voice” wishing for an end to judging people by skin color. Linda Chavez, prominent crusader against affirmative action, came to my university a few years ago to admonish us to cease judging applicants “based on the color of their skin.” Dr. King, she told us, would be opposed because our policy “smacks of the kind of racism that has long plagued this nation.” She and a legion of others have given life to what George Orwell, in his novel 1984, called Newspeak, the use of words in ambiguous and contradictory ways, telling lies by appearing to tell the truth.
Were he to come back to make a fortieth anniversary speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, reflecting on the manipulation of his legacy to discredit his mature prescription for his country, we should not be surprised to hear an oration entitled “I Have a Nightmare.” One can imagine the long catalogue of abandoned commitments to racial justice. Then, recalling his wish for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power,” he might note the cruel irony of deepening poverty, a widening gap between rich and poor, and a tax policy designed to make it wider. Remembering his hostility to militarism, he might summon his powerful rhetoric to condemn his nation not only for the massive destruction it wrought on another country but for apparently justifying its actions with untruths. Then he might recall words he spoke to the United States Senate shortly before he was assassinated: “The values of the marketplace supersede the goals of social justice.” Looking out toward the White House, he might conclude by reflecting on the nation’s identification of its democracy with those very marketplace values and how it seemed to be on a messianic mission to spread the values of what it called “free market capitalism” to its newly conquered lands and their neighbors. It would not be a pretty speech.
We miss the man who might say these things and regret the way we missed understanding what he did say to us; and we hope for the day when his message will be heard in the voices of an aroused citizenry ready finally to bring about “a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society.”
Paul M. Gaston, Professor Emeritus of Southern and Civil Rights History at the University of Virginia, is a past president of the Southern Regional Council and a contributing editor of Southern Changes. He is the author of The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (NewSouth Books) and other books on southern history.