August 26, 2013

Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech 50 Years later

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                           

To Black activists and college students in the middle 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. was not the iconic figure  who is being remembered this year, on the fiftieth anniversary of his famous "I have a Dream Speech." Delivered from the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963, that speech was the rhetorical high point of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Martin Luther King delivering his "I Have a Dream" Speech

One only has to look at a photograph of King to begin to discern why he fell somewhat out of favor on university campuses between 1963 and 1968. King invariably wore a dark suit and had a short haircut. He dressed like a banker or a mainstream politician. By 1968 students had adopted a colorful wardrobe of loose-fitting clothing and long hair. Only a small, square minority had crew-cuts or short hair. That "look" declared one’s sympathy for the military. Dressing like Martin Luther King was just not cool.

King also made a point of presenting himself as a Christian. This was a good strategy in the American South in the late 1950s, as it challenged the minds and reached out to the hearts of his opponents. King challenged the core values and identity of Southern racists, who regarded themselves as quintessentially Christian. But on university campuses, emphasizing Christianity was more controversial and did not win support from Marxists, for example, or from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Indeed, in the late 1960s many Hippies were turning toward Eastern religions and non-Christian religions.

Martin Luther King was still respected for his early work in Civil Rights, but by the middle 1960s young Black students were distancing themselves from him. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had begun as an outgrowth of his civil disobedience campaign against segregation. But by 1967 SNCC had rejected non-violence, Black Power was the new slogan, and more confrontational tactics were being adopted.  Some even called King an Uncle Tom.

King’s goals were under attack. He called for assimilation. Black Power demanded separation; not integration into mainstream white society, but separate businesses, separate organizations of all kinds, and even separate Black states. The more radical white student leaders rejected the white middle class itself.  They did not think that African Americans would benefit from assimilation. The white middle class, they thought, was not the solution but the problem. Their values, radicals believed, were dangerous. They were imperialistic and violent. They subscribed to patriarchy, and keep down women, Blacks, Native Americans, and Third World peoples.  The new ideology of Black Power proclaimed that “Black is beautiful” and called for liberation from white society. The Black Muslims and Malcolm X had arrived at similar conclusions.

Stokley Carmichael and the more radical students wanted revolution not assimilation. From this perspective, King was part of the problem. They did not want "to overcome" with whites and join in a new color-blind society. They instead wanted Black communities that affirmed a distinctive Black culture and consciousness. They wanted to stop what they regarded as the white war on people of color, whether in the United States or in Vietnam.  Martin Luther King met with Lyndon Johnson at the White House, In contrast, Stokley Carmichael and SNCC refused to meet with him.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, student radicals were angry, but they also felt vindicated. They regarded the shooting as final proof of their own arguments. The assassination seemed to demonstrate that non-violence could never work. In 1968, a Revolution seemed necessary, and it seemed near.

Half a century later, it is painfully obvious that the radical students were wrong. The years after 1968 did not lead to revolution or even a liberal government. On the Left, Richard Nixon's election in 1968 was regarded as the last gasp of an old order that would soon be swept away. But between 1968 and 1992 Republicans would hold the presidency for all but 4 years. The United States proved far more conservative than student radicals thought. 

Looking back a half century to 1963, King has emerged as a towering figure, an effective organizer, a captivating public speaker, and a man able to mobilize and unite disparate groups to effect fundamental change. He has been canonized as the visionary who redefined what the American Dream might yet be. He appears great today, but he also illustrates all too well that a prophet often is not recognized in his own country. Only with the passage of time have Americans begun to understand his true stature.  

King still speaks to the world's problems today. The following words from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech apply with considerable force to all too many contemporary crises, particularly in the Middle East.

"Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers."