Martin Luther King's Flawed Dream

From: Anne Wortham, The World and I, June 1998, 66-71

Annually, throughout the month of February, known as Black History Month, Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice punctuates the airwaves like a public-service announcement, delivering his “I Have a Dream”’ speech at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C.

What listeners usually hear is the speech’s rousing “Let freedom ring!” finale, which begins with King’s invocation of the patriotic hymn “America” and ends with the vision of

the day when alt God’s children–black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics–will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ,Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Although this climax receives the most airplay and seems to be most often included in film documentaries, it is the preceding “Dream” sequence that is most often quoted. King told a quarter of a million people at the Lincoln Memorial that “even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”

Dreams Past, Present, and Future

The rhetorical flourish that followed, in which he wished that his 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,” was but an abbreviated portrayal of his vision of the Beloved Community.

Three years earlier, in a speech he delivered on the golden anniversary of the National Urban League and which appeared in the December 1960 issue of the YWCA Magazine, he presented his most succinct conception of the dream, as follows:

The dream is one of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men do not argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a place where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality and men will dare to live together as brothers–that is the dream. Whenever it is fulfilled, we will emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glowing daybreak of freedom and justice for all of God’s children.

King’s dream was “no private vision, nothing esoteric,” observes biographer William Robert Miller in Martin Luther King, Jr: His Life, Martyrdom, and Meaning for the World (1968). Rather, it was “a personalized translation of the American heritage taught to every schoolboy, forged anew in a context of the Negro experience.”

The words of the speech, which invoked the patriotic symbolism of the Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg Address, and Emancipation Proclamation, “came right out of elementary school civics,” Miller concludes. Indeed, as King stated in the Washington speech and asserted several years later, in the May 1968 issue of Negro History Bulletin,

It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, lifted to cosmic proportions: “We hold these these truths to be self-evident–that all men are created with inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is the dream.”

A New American Dream

But as Richard Lescher points out in The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America (1995), King meant to convey more than a civics lesson; the speech was a rhetorical strategy that identified black aspirations with the traditional consensus ideals of America and “assured his hearers that history and universal moral law are aligned with the black quest for freedom.”

As King stated in a 1967 Playboy article, “A Testament of Hope,” he believed that blacks could provide “a new expression of The American Dream that need not be realized at the expense of other men. around the world, but a dream of opportunity and life that can be shared with the rest of the world.”  His aim was to expand the dream and give blacks a central role in its fulfillment.

That the speech was more than rhetoric for King is clearly documented by Ira Zepp in his study The Social Vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1989).      As Zepp shows, through the use of a synthesis of biblical and civil-religious rhetoric, King expressed his preoccupation with the establishment of the Beloved Community–a completely integrated society, a community of love and justice, based on what he called the “solidarity of the human family” and the “inescapable network of mutuality” with which we are tied together. He believed the Beloved Community would be the ideal corporate expression of the Christian faith and was the only form of association that could foster an egalitarian approach to wealth and property.

King’s abiding faith, as he said in the Washington speech, was that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” that God had the power to achieve His purpose among mankind within history. And it was with this faith that Americans

will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to play together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

Life in the Beloved Community

King understood the American dream as belief in the “dignity and worth of all human personality,” but he was no individualist. The primary purpose of life in the Beloved Community is self-giving, not self-realization. That is, he saw self-realization as a derivative of self-giving.

As Ervin Smith points out in The Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1981): “King came to believe that only through losing one’s self for the Beloved Community does one really find himself.” The self is never thought of in detachment from the community. The good of the community is not really served where the chief concern is self-realization. Neither did he believe that the good of the community was served by giving primacy to private property.

King saw his dream as rooted in the American dream. His dream is more properly seen, however, as a collection of conflicting premises borrowed from the American creed and its corollary, the American dream. In his powerfully argued book, American Exceptionalism (1996), sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset quotes G.K. Chesterton, who observed that “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.”

The two values at the core of the American creed are individualism and egalitarianism, or freedom and equality. As Lipset points out, “Americans believe strongly in both.” But one consequence of a perceived contradiction between the two is that

political debate often takes the form of one consensual value opposing the other. Liberals stress the primacy of egalitarianism and the social injustice that flows through unfettered individualism. Conservatives enshrine individual freedom and the social need for mobility and achievement as values “endangered” by the collectivism inherent in liberal nostrums. Both sides treat as their natural constituency the entire American public.

King’s dream of the Beloved Community was partially grounded in a distorted version of the egalitarian element of the American creed, not in its individualism. Had he been an advocate of individualism, he would have possessed a conceptual basis for a far more inspiring dream speech, the thrust of which would have served both blacks and whites better than the speech he delivered.

For the country surely could have used a good dose of back-stiffening rational individualism rather than the sugarcoated collectivism that was ladled out that day. Such a speech would have had as its central feature not compulsory social egalitarianism in racial matters but the primacy of individual freedom, achievement, and equality of opportunity and their dependence on a competitive market economy.

What about Talent and Hard Work?

The American dream is based on a belief in upward mobility through talent and hard work. Even those whose hard work has not made them millionaires believe that upward mobility is possible for their children. Our folklore and children’s books are filled with stories of upward mobility through thrill, clean living, self-discipline, self-responsibility, the training and cultivation of our talents, and, above all, the cultivation of reason–qualities that define the work ethic.

We warn the young against laxness and wastefulness, lest they fall in status. As Katherine Newman points out in Falling From Grace(1988), downward mobility–that is, losing social rank–is portrayed as a disgrace to one’s family and a denial of the meaning of our society. If success in life is a sign of God’s grace, then failure to maintain social rank can be interpreted as withdrawal of divine approval, a “falling from grace.”

“It cannot be stressed enough that much in contemporary attitudes and behavior may be explained by the cultural emphasis on achievement,” argues Lipset. “Most Americans believe that hard work, rather than ‘lucky breaks or help from other people,’ is what enables people to move up.” Lipset provides thorough documentation of this assertion, including his citation of a 1991 Gallup poll which found that “69 percent of whites and 68 percent of blacks say that African-Americans should focus their energy on improving education”

Had King’s dream been a more consistent reflection of the American dream, there would have been less talk about the table of brotherhood and more about the table of plenty. He would have done better by us to insist not on a Beloved Community (which can hardly be taken as an irreducible primary) connected by the most unrealistic quality of “disinterested love” but on a pluralistic community of achievers connected by the very real requirement of individual rights. Harold Cruse points out in Plural but Equal (1989) that King was the first black leader in over 70 years who possessed the charisma, moral authority, and broad-enough community base to tell blacks in the wake of civil rights gains “how they might reorganize their lives to cope with the demands of freedom in a pluralistic society.”

King came close to doing so, even to the extent of using the words of Booker T. Washington to say in Where Do We Go From Here? that “[the Negro] must not wait for the end of the segregation that lies at the basis of his own economic deprivation; he must act now to lift himself up by his own bootstraps.”  But, as Cruse demonstrates, in the end King foundered and dissipated his moral authority in the interests of the “brotherhood of man” and the redemption of America’s soul.

A Civics Lesson Was Needed

In the years following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, King should have “turned his moral authority back on the black minority itself,” says Cruse, and delivered a secular message of self-determination that said, in effect, “get your own minority house in order.” Unfortunately, this was not King’s message. It would not have been a new message. Variations of its perspective have been voiced by blacks since the antebellum period, most notably by Booker T. Washington at the turn of the century and later by W.E.B. DuBois. But it has gone unheeded.

The Martin Luther King who is lionized by intellectuals, theologians, the media, civic organizations, and professional black activists is not the potential bootstraps King but the “I have a dream” King. One wishes that if he could not have strategically delivered a bootstraps speech during the March on Washington, that he could have at least delivered a “civics lesson” which more accurately depicted the American creed and the American dream.

I truly believe that my life would be different and my country would be a better place had Martin Luther King been the kind of man who could insist on the whole of the American creed and merge his voice not only with Jefferson and Lincoln and Isaiah but with John Locke, Adam Smith, and Booker T. Washington. And not just these, but with the voices of ordinary blacks like my working-class, achievement-oriented father–a true yeoman of black progress–who, by the time of King’s emergence as a black leader, had already taught me those commonsense sayings of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard (some of which can also be found in Saint Paul):

God helps them that help themselves.  Lost time is never found  again. Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today .If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some; for he that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing.

Imagine hearing words like these punctuating the airwaves during Black History Month!