King’s Movement Was More Interested in Justice Than Harmony

Aug 28, 2010

Today marks the 47th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom–and of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic "I Have a Dream Speech." Both the event and the speech stand among the most striking examples of how the civil rights movement in general and King in particular are today so tragically misunderstood. 

King’s rousing "Dream" speech culminated in a moving vision of racial harmony, with black and white children holding hands and singing freedom songs. This depiction of peaceful unity is all that remains in the collective memory of his radical, world-changing activism. We have clung desperately to its promise and held it up as a rose-tinted screen against King’s core message: that before we can have harmony, we must first have justice.

As we noted earlier this week, King’s "Dream" speech detailed the work his movement demanded:

King began the speech by harking back to the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation as a "great beacon of light." But he quickly pivoted to the ways in which that light had dimmed. "One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity," King declared. "We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one," he later added.

He talked about change-making in starkly radical terms, explicitly rejecting the purported pragmatism we’re now urged to accept on everything from immigration to jobs to health care. "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," he insisted. Before he got around to kids holding hands and singing about freedom, King talked about the "whirlwinds of revolt" that would make that moment possible, about the need to "shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."

These are the ideas that remain most relevant on the anniversary of the March on Washington. His movement would not reach for the unity so often invoked today while looking past the fact that a quarter of black households live in poverty and that more than 15 percent of black workers are unemployed. It wouldn’t look past the yawning gap in wealth between white and black families–a nearly ten-fold spread. That wealth is what creates the opportunity King fought for–the ability to make it through school without life-crippling debt, to invest in both a new career and a new family at the same time, to weather the 2001 recession without taking out subprime loans that ended in foreclosure and further loss of wealth. 

King’s movement wouldn’t–and didn’t–prioritize comity in Washington or the electoral future of the Democratic Party over righting these sorts of wrongs. It wouldn’t–and didn’t–say, well, we’ve got an "ally" in the White House so let’s not make too much noise about the injustices unfolding in our neighborhoods every day. It wouldn’t–and didn’t–care more about political pragmatism than the fact that record numbers of families are starving. King’s movement would be urgent. He said it best himself, 47 years ago today:

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check–a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hollowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.

Here’s to beginning again in 2010.

Photo: Creative Commons/The National Archives

Photo: Library of Congress

Photo: Creative Commons/The National Archives

Photo: Creative Commons/The National Archives