||A dream dishonored after 30 years
By PAMELA SCHAEFFER
Certain phrases from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s I Have a Dream speech are nearly as well-known to Americans today as lines from Abraham Lincolns Gettysburg Address. Yet according to an expert on King, many Americans have forgotten -- or perhaps never knew -- what the civil rights leaders now-familiar words meant to the man who uttered them.
The result, according to Roger D. Hatch, a professor of religion at Central Michigan University, is that Kings 1963 message has been twisted and exploited by opponents of civil rights.
Hatch summed up his findings in a paper delivered at this years national meeting of the American Academy of Religion, held in Orlando, Fla., in late November. The paper was titled Martin Luther King Jr. After 30 Years: Trivializing, Distorting and Ignoring His Vision.
Kings I Have a Dream speech became linked to the civil rights leader as no other words he uttered. Since he spoke them from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, his name is rarely uttered except in conjunction with the word dream.
Unfortunately, says Hatch, just as the Lorraine Hotel has become a civil rights museum, a monument to Kings assassination there on April 4, 1968, some of Kings most ardent ideals seem frozen in time.
Much has transpired to further the cause of racial equality since Kings death, but for some who were deeply inspired by his ringing call for justice in 1963 -- justice that rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream -- the distance of 30 years can be traced just as well by ambivalence, setbacks and political games as by any lasting signs of integration.
Silly season of nostalgia
The distortions are particularly evident, Hatch said, from Jan. 15, Kings birthday, through the end of Black History Month in February. Hatch calls this annual six-week period the silly season of King nostalgia -- a time when King is dishonored by efforts to honor him.
In a predictable array of winter rituals, Hatch said, King is portrayed as a dreamer, as standing for motherhood, apple pie and Chevrolet. Americans are subjected to platitudinous, vacuous speeches -- speeches that inspire good feelings and ignore the setbacks to racial equality that have marked the years since Kings death.
You can buy every manner of kitschy item with Dr. Kings face on them, Hatch said -- and pay for them with credit cards bearing Martin Luther Kings face.
One mark of the problem, he said, is the way Kings speech is often referenced today. All too frequently, Hatch said, it is by this line, which comes toward the end of Kings famous speech:
I have a dream that my four 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.
That line, when removed from the context of the rest of the speech, suggests that it is the character of the black person that is on trial rather than the character of a nation. Yet the speech, taken as a whole, is a harsh indictment of the national character, a demand for justice and equality in education, in housing and in access to the benefits of a free society historically denied to blacks.
The irony, Hatch said, is that King is not only dishonored but exploited. The character line has become a weapon in the hands of those who propose a colorblind society -- that is, people who oppose racial justice in general and affirmative action in particular. Some who use Kings words even hope to repeal the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by any business or institution that receives federal contracts.
Prelude to harder work
King was no fool, Hatch said. He foresaw the hard work ahead. In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here, published in 1967, King recognized that the decade leading from the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955-56 to adoption of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, however difficult an era, was only a prelude to harder work.
Those who came together in those years were the best of America, he wrote, but they were not all of America. Outside of those stalwart marchers and champions, commitment is shallow, he said. He knew that full educational equality, creating jobs and abolishing slums were far harder than passing laws.
What King could not have foreseen, he said, was how formidable the opposition would be in resisting even those civil rights gains that King himself was able to see during his lifetime ... nor could he have foreseen how his opponents in the struggle for racial justice would twist his own words until they were routinely used as a weapon against measures seeking more racial justice.
The undermining of Kings vision at the highest American political levels, according to Hatch, began with Gov. George Wallace, who personally stood at the door of the University of Alabama to keep black students from entering. It continues right up to the present, in the Clinton administration, he said.
Among highlights of the opposition:
As for education, the enduring legacy of the Reagan-Bush era is a retreat from school desegregation as a goal, Hatch said.
Clinton advocates personal responsibility -- a theme, Hatch said, that is reserved exclusively for speeches before black audiences.
Twisting his words
Such political maneuvering is often given a gloss of justice when Kings own words are twisted, taken out of context and watered down, Hatch said. Opponents of Kings view of racial justice have tried to get the image of King the dreamer to crowd out and overpower every other aspect of Kings life and work.
Twisting language, Hatch said, was part of the campaign in California two years ago for Proposition 209, which prohibited public universities from considering race in admissions decisions. Kings words are distorted to suggest that King would have favored what the Reagan administration called colorblindness -- that is, denying blacks an edge through affirmative action programs. Opponents of affirmative action unabashedly assert that the goal of abolishing preferences based on race and gender is in keeping with Kings dream of a colorblind America.
In a further assault on language, Ward Connerly, a black businessman from Sacramento, Calif., and others have formed the American Civil Rights Institute, an organization whose name suggests the opposite of what it stands for: promoting repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Another example, Hatch said, is a recent book by Terry Eastland, Reagan administration activist, called Ending Affirmative Action: The Case for Colorblind Justice. Throughout the book, Hatch said, Eastland uses lines from Martin Luther Kings 1963 speech and other examples from the civil rights movement in support for his argument that affirmative action is a bargain with the devil.
Yet, said Hatch, the Sunday before King was shot in 1968, he gave a sermon denouncing the bootstrap philosophy -- the belief that blacks can pull themselves out of poverty -- without aid from society. The sermon was titled Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.
When conservatives quote from the 1963 speech to advocate colorblindness, they ignore the core of the message: Kings portrait of blacks shackled by segregation and discrimination and mired in poverty, said Hatch.
In many ways, he said, America today is no closer, and possibly further removed, from the realization of Kings dream.
Setbacks to school desegregation under an increasingly conservative Supreme Court have prompted almost a return to the 102-year-old doctrine of equal but segregated schools, Hatch said.
Affirmative action has been severely limited in the courts and what laws remain are under continued assault.
Meanwhile, those who remember King and rallied to his vision in the 1960s are getting older. To many of a younger generation, the civil rights leader is one-dimensional, another face in a history book.
King knew that the road to full racial equality, to a just society, would be hard, Hatch said. What he didnt know was how hard it would be just to keep from losing ground.
National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999