60 years after the March on Washington, please read Dr. King’s full ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, by Congresswoman Jennifer McClellan
8/31/2023, 6 p.m.
It’s been 60 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. One of the most famous speeches in American history, it is named for its most quoted line: “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.”
Dr. King’s speech became emblematic of the Civil Rights Movement and has been taught in classrooms across America for decades.
Unfortunately, most people largely ignore the main theme of Dr. King’s speech, which called on America to uphold the “promissory note” etched into the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. He called on America to redress the inequity in our nation, make the reality of our nation match the promise of its founding principles, “the fierce urgency of now” to do so, and the dangers of doing nothing.
Dr. King grounded his speech in a historical context many far-right Republicans now seek to eradicate from school history curricula: That 100 years after the promise of the Emancipa- tion Proclamation, Black Americans still had not achieved full freedom and equality, but were “sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” languishing “in the corners of American society ... an exile in his own land.”
The March on Washington aimed “to dramatize a shameful condition” — the chasm between our nation’s promise of equality and liberty and the reality Black Americans experienced in 1963.
To put a finer point on it, Dr. King declared the purpose of the March was “to cash a check.”
This prolonged default on America’s promissory note was the result of backlash to progress made during Reconstruction. Following the abolition of slavery and passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, Jim Crow laws took root in the South and relegated African-Americans to second class citizens, an effort upheld by the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.
The Civil Rights Movement would face a similar backlash.
Eleven months after Dr. King’s demand that the United States “make real the promises of democracy,” the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Passage of these landmark bills resulted in the racially exploitative “Southern Strategy” that elected Richard Nixon in 1968.
Over the past few years, we have witnessed backlashes to the gains made by historically marginalized groups. Following the election of Barack Obama as the first Black President, the backlash resulted in the election of Donald Trump and the re-emergence of blatant white supremacy, as evidenced by the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.
The generational changes made in the wake of the murder of George Floyd gave rise to an all-out culture war against critical race theory (CRT), Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and anything they consider “woke.” Widespread misinformation campaigns have left many conservatives opposed to a theory they do not fully understand. Countless members of the Republican party, including former President Donald Trump, then-Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, and several members of the House Freedom Caucus, have even invoked Dr. King in their attacks on CRT and DEI, claiming they ignore the message he delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. They clearly have not read “I Have a Dream” in its entirety, which was rooted in and delivered through a historical lens.
The GOP’s “war against wokeism” paved the way for coordinated efforts to restrict school curriculums. Now, states across the nation are banning thousands of books, the vast majority of which are written by members of the LGBTQ+ community or people of color, and conservative groups even attempted to ban a book about Dr. King. As a mother to two young children in public schools, I fear this alarming trend could have far-reaching consequences.
This latest backlash also seeks to undo much of the very progress we have made toward achieving Dr. King’s dream of living up to the ideals upon which our country was founded by redressing the inequality rooted in slavery and Jim Crow. But now is not the time to hide from our history or to retreat from the work that Dr. King started.
Sixty years later, we must recommit to redeeming the promissory note of our founding documents and make Dr. King’s dream a reality for every American.
Congresswoman Jennifer McClellan represents Virginia’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives and is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.