As the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington approached, much was made about Martin King’s dream. The dream, which is but four minutes of a 16-minute address, neatly and conveniently overshadows not only the 12 minutes proceeding, but also the reasons for the event.
Time has a unique way of altering our understanding of reality. The past 40 years has transformed the March on Washington into homage to Dr. King, but it was much more than that. The March on Washington was the vision of labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, it was born out of the frustration at the grassroots level of the state sanctioned Apartheid in the south, and the Neanderthal pace of the Kennedy Administration to act.
To understand the dream is to come to terms with 1963 as a defining moment within our nation’s history. Alabama Governor George Wallace began the year with his infamous inaugural address, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Conner, with his police dogs and fire hoses became an international symbol for evil.
It was the year that NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers was gunned down, four young black girls were killed when a pipe bomb went off before Sunday services, and President Kennedy was assassinated. But somewhere in the midst of the confusion housed in 1963, 250,000 people representing a myriad of races, backgrounds, and ethnicities gathered together, galvanized by what America could be rather than what it had become.
To understand Dr. King’s dream is to come to terms with how the victims were viewed as the perpetrators. Those who systematically had their human rights denied were the ones the Kennedy Administration feared most as they assembled on the Nation’s Capitol August 28, 1963. Is it not strange to think some 40 years later those who simply wanted America to make good on its promise of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, were also the ones the Kennedy Administration felt would be prone to destructive acts of violence on that day?
We cannot begin to understand the dreamless we understand how Dr. King answered his four-year-old daughter when she posed the question, “Daddy, why do you have to go to jail so much?” Because the key to understanding the dream is to understand what gave rise to the dream.
I submit that collectively we make a grave historical error in looking at the “dream” from the perspective of a 34-year-old theologian addressing 250,000 in the August humidity provided by a Washington DC afternoon. The elements that gave rise to the dream in 1963, keep it alive some 40 years later.
The courageous efforts exemplified by those who dared to conduct sit-ins, protest, and march in peaceful, nonviolent defiance became strength to movements around the world. Because in that “dream” was the liberation path of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, the fatigue of Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer, the martyrdom of Emmet Till along with Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney. It was student rebellion in Greensboro, Montgomery and Birmingham. It became the perseverance of Nelson Mandela and the inspiration to so many gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
The dream of Martin King is to understand in practice the words of James Russell Lowell, “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on throne, yet the scaffold sways the future. And behind the dim unknown stands God that keeps watch over Gods’ own.”
Denisha M. DeLane, 24 year old resident of Berkeley, is a member of the NAACP National Board of Directors, representing the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and the countries of Japan, and Korea.