MLK March on Washington

The “I Have a Dream” speech has become part of American patriotic mythology.

M. Christian and Mental Floss tipped me off to this fabulous classic news reel, “Clothing of the Future,” in which the designers of 1939 tried to predict the clothing of 2000. Did you know the skirt will disappear entirely? I will say this — Burning Man is coming up in just a couple weeks, and any of these outfits would be great there! Oh, Swish!

Much like the myth of Rosa Parks, which we’ve investigated before on FDL, the myth of Martin Luther King and his “I Have a Dream Speech” now obscure the real meaning of the speech and the event. From The Nation:

Half a century after the March on Washington and the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the event has been neatly folded into America’s patriotic mythology. Relatively few people know or recall that the Kennedy administration tried to get organizers to call it off; that the FBI tried to dissuade people from coming; that racist senators tried to discredit the leaders; that twice as many Americans had an unfavorable view of the march as a favorable one. Instead, it is hailed not as a dramatic moment of mass, multiracial dissidence, but as a jamboree in Benetton Technicolor, exemplifying the nation’s unrelenting progress toward its founding ideals.

Central to that repackaging of history is the misremembering of King’s speech. It has been cast not as a searing indictment of American racism that still exists, but as an eloquent period piece articulating the travails of a bygone era. So on the fiftieth anniversary of ”I Have a Dream,” “Has King’s dream been realized?” is one of the two most common and, to my mind, least interesting questions asked of the speech; the other is “Does President Obama represent the fulfillment of King’s dream?” The short answer to both is a clear “no,” even if the longer responses are more interesting than the questions deserve. We know that King’s dream was not limited to the rhetoric of just one speech. To judge a life as full and complex as his by one sixteen-minute address, some of which was delivered extemporaneously, is neither respectful nor serious.

Regardless, any contemporary discussion about the legacy of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech must begin by acknowledging the way we now interpret the themes it raised at the time. Words like “race,” “equality,” “justice,” “discrimination” and “segregation” mean something quite different when a historically oppressed minority is explicitly excluded from voting than it does when the president of the United States is black. King used the word “Negro” fifteen times in the speech; today the term is finally being retired from the US Census as a racial category.

I also recommend the most recent Smiley & West show, which highlights overlooked and underheard MLK speeches.

What’s on your mind tonight? It’s an open conversation in the comments.

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Public domain photo from United States Information Agency.