Sunday, August 24, 2003

'Missing' part of King's speech recalled

Yesterday, many Americans went to our nation's capitol to honor one of the finest orations in American history.

Thousands of people gathered in Washington Saturday to mark the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech, a defining moment in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality in the United States.

Forty years ago 250,000 people marched on Washington, calling the nation's attention to the injustice and discrimination black Americans faced because of the color of their skin.

Standing below the towering statue of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered an eloquent call for equality at a time when blacks in the United States were banned from many public schools, forced to eat in separate restaurants and had to pay taxes and pass literacy tests to vote.

Comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory has a novel view of Dr. Martin Luther King's famous speech, according to columnist Clarence Page.

WASHINGTON -- I am more than halfway into ABC News anchor Peter Jennings' excellent documentary on Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech when I hear comedian-activist Dick Gregory get to the real reason why millions of TV viewers watched King's speech: A lot of people feared there was going to be "trouble."

"And why did white folks look at it?" Gregory says. Not because they wanted to hear what black people had to say. "They thought it was going to be a bloodbath. They thought it was going to be violence and so they listened all the way to the end."

According to Gregory, the networks probably would not have gotten much of an audience if they simply announced that "we have a very eloquent Negro that's going to give a very eloquent speech, we want you to listen."

I was not available to record anything at the time, but Page was, and he vouches for the at least partial accuracy of Gregory's observation. The entire country was on edge and there was even talk of declaring martial law. Many African-Americans, in both the North and South, were just plain fed up.

All three networks covered the speech live. I was a high schooler in southern Ohio and did not have a huge interest in world events. But I watched every minute of King's speech. Racial segregation was still legal. My parents could not take me to certain amusement parks, hotels or restaurants. When we traveled far, we slept in our car. The only difference for us in the North was that we could ride in the front of the bus and we didn't have "white" and "colored" signs.

Page asserts that King's own mood in the speech encompassed that anger and disgust, though it has receded from memory in subsequent years. The great man wrote, unabashedly, of African-Americans as a group of people cheated by America -- sent a check not backed by funds.

The columnist observes that the second, more optimistic part of King's speech is what is usually applauded by Americans, including those who oppose most mechanisms to achieve racial equality, now.

And it is King's vision of a better society that Americans and the world remember today far more widely than they remember the sense of debt and "obligation" that he references in the early part of his speech. Everybody, it seems, would like to see a free, just and equalized society. We only argue about how to get there.

That tendency leads some people to speak of ways to achieve King's dream that run precisely counter to what King actually wanted. The fight for "color-blindedness" should not make us blind to reality.

. . .In fact, King believed Americans would have to be quite color-conscious in order to achieve his dream. Otherwise, we would have no way to measure our progress.

I find Page's interpretation of King's I Have a Dream speech convincing. To have championed equality while ignoring the work needed to achieve it would have been stupid and Dr. King was not a stupid man. I believe he envisioned a future in which people of color would finally receive payment of the debt owed them, instead of being cheated again by by a society that pretends to be color-blind, but is not.

A year after his original speech, Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize and the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law made segregation in public places illegal, required employers to provide equal work opportunities and protected every American's right to vote.

In 1968 Dr. King was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of a motel room in Memphis, Tennessee.

All these years later, the debt still remains unpaid.

Read Page's column and form an opinion of your own.

Note: A version of this entry was published at Silver Rights, a weblog focusing on civil rights and related issues.

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