Context is vital when quoting civil rights legend
Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on February 23, 2023)
Author: Dr. RL Booker
Editor: Veronica Mobley
"I have a dream that my four little 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."
This quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech has been verbalized, tweeted and posted on social media for years. It shows King's passion for challenging us to understand that, biologically, we are virtually no different from each other. But it also highlights the reality that his little children and millions of Black people throughout the United States were literally judged by the color of their skin without respect to the content of their character.
King's daughter, Dr. Bernice A. King, has said that nothing is more frustrating than to see people take her father's words and use them to fit their situations without acknowledging the context in which he was speaking.
I, too, ask myself how it's possible so many of us overlook the important phrase "will one day live in a nation." How is it that so many people overlook the title of the speech itself? King was explaining that America in 1963 had not yet reached the dream he envisioned. If there is any confusion about the context of King's quote, we only have to look at the very next passage within the speech: "I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification ... little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little White boys and White girls as sisters and brothers."
Many of you might think "Come on, now. We are no longer living in the 1960s. Doesn't the fact that you, a Black man, are freely writing this show the visible advancement of people of color? What about affirmative action and many other laws that have been passed to help people of color?"
Yes, progress has been made. In King's 1966 Illinois Wesleyan University Convocation speech, and in his book "Stride Toward Freedom," King said "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable ... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle ... and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so, it is necessary to help time and to realize that the time is always right to do right."
The reality is that slow progress has come at a cost, and that cost is the safety and livelihoods of Black Americans.
Is it possible to ever get to King's vision of judging people only by the content of their character? I hope we will get there, but it's not going to happen overnight. As many people have said, we must accept our shared history (the good and the bad) and acknowledge each other's humanity via policies. Instead of fearmongering, political leaders should ensure their statements promote calm instead of panic. They must stop gaslighting people who continue to experience systemic injustices created by these policies and legislation. Leaders must also acknowledge the realities and solutions that King fervently spoke about in his more than 2,500 public speeches many of us have no knowledge of. If we want to have a conversation about solutions, we must first be informed.
If we want a nation that judges people by the content of their character, each of us must be honest about the character we display, not only when we engage with others who are different from us, but also when we vote, hire and promote. Character starts within.
King knew the fight for equality would ebb and flow. He warned all of us that there "is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism." He knew there were powers that would fight against equality to protect their own financial, political and social power. King predicted the United States that we live in today. A United States within which Black Americans continue to struggle for equal protections and rights in classrooms, in hospitals, in owning a home, in the criminal justice system. A United States in which Black children still need "the talk" from parents who fear for their safety in a world that still judges them by skin color as they play and run through their own neighborhoods.
As we have seen over the past few years, gradual progress is not enough. So maybe, leaders and citizens alike should think before they decide to use some parts of King's "I Have a Dream" speech to fit their own self-centered efforts. Maybe they should reflect on the content of their own characters.
Until our nation's people and political leaders truly check their character, "there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his [full] citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."
These often-overlooked words come from the same "I Have a Dream" speech. Until justice rings from every mountaintop in the United States and every person in our country can freely live, work, learn, play and love, we all have work to do.
Listen to the Entire, I Have a Dream Speech