UT Historians and others reflect on 50th anniverary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech
Wed, August 28, 2013
Published by UT Public Affairs, Aug. 26, 2013.
Fifty years ago, on a warm late-August day, more than a quarter of a million people participated in one of the country’s largest ever political rallies for human rights. The event was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and is best remembered for an iconic speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. that has come to be known as “I Have a Dream.”
On the occasion of the event’s 50th anniversary, UT gathered images of King taken by Flip Schulke (1930-2008), a noted photojournalist who donated his vast collection of images taken over a 40-year career to UT’s Briscoe Center for American History. And they invited scholars, staff and students to reflect on the legacy of the speech and how it rings today.
Featured in the article are History faculty Daina Ramey Berry, Jacqueline Jones, Laurie Green, Frank A. Guridy, Juliet E. K. Walker, Leonard Moore, and Jeremi Suri.
As a young student at Howard University I marched that day with my mother and family. Looking back, I am reminded of the power of people coming together peacefully to petition their government for support and policy changes. I expected the federal government to respond with thoughtful and carefully crafted legislation and policy to right the wrongs of the day. My career in public service is informed by the powerful messages of Dr. King, John Lewis and others, and the courageous response of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and the majority of Congress with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. America is a better country for their inspiration and actions.
—Shirley Franklin, Barbara Jordan Visiting Professor of Ethics and Political Values, LBJ School of Public Affairs, former mayor of Atlanta
The 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s landmark speech is an opportune time to reflect on how this 1,667-word oration serves as a reminder of the “bad check” of slavery, Jim Crow and the alternating cycles of violence and neglect directed towards African Americans. Dr. King clearly intended his words to inspire and uplift all Americans, but we must remember that the inspiration came after a realistic perusal of the American character through the mirror of history. I hope we as a nation have the courage to gaze unafraid at our past and present inequities so that we can accomplish his vision of justice and righteousness flowing “like a mighty stream” for all of the members of the beloved community.
—Rich Reddick, assistant professor, Department of Education Administration; faculty affiliate, John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies
Many of the inequalities and injustices that he speaks out against are nearly the same issues that we rally against today. However, MLK’s speech began a movement that has progressed America’s disadvantaged further than one can measure. His speech — and the continuous celebration of it — shows us the power in fighting for what you believe in.
—Chelsea N. Jones, junior, College of Communication; co-director of Community Relations, Afrikan American Affairs; assistant director, Diversity & Inclusion Agency, Student Government
I encourage everyone to read the entire speech and ask yourself the following questions: Can America cash the check for justice? Are African Americans still exiles in their own land? Where do we go from here? King wanted us to sit at the table and have an honest conversation about race. Is America ready, willing and able to do so, 50 years later?
—Daina Ramey Berry, associate professor, Departments of History and African and African Diaspora Studies
The Dream is a prophecy come true for my family. My wife LeeAnn Kahlor and I are white and we have 5 adopted kids. Four are black and one is Hispanic. As a parent, I sometimes reflect on the fact that our lives together might not be possible. This is when I truly understand what King was able to help us envision as a nation.
—Dave Junker, lecturer, Department of Advertising and Public Relations, director, Senior Fellows Honors Program, College of Communication
Because we refer to the Reverend King’s speech as the “I Have a Dream Speech,” we tend to focus on the latter part of it. How differently would we read and think about this speech if we instead referred to it as “The Fierce Urgency of Now” speech! We would then focus on the way King juxtaposes the sufferings of enslaved men and women “seared in the flames of withering injustice” with the persistently “shameful condition” of 20th century African Americans “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” King offers an implicit condemnation of a willfully indifferent federal government, bowing to the segregationists of both political parties, and of the liberal whites calling upon civil rights activists to exercise “moderation” and “patience.” To counter these elements of blacks’ “shameful condition,” citizens of goodwill must attack political and economic inequality without delay and compensate for the centuries of betrayal and broken promises endured by people of African descent in America. As we continue to grapple with such fundamental injustices in American life, King’s words suggest we should do more than “dream” of a better future; rather, the country must take bold action, for, in his still-prescient words, “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment” — that is, a long history of injustice that has led us to “the fierce urgency of Now.”
—Jacqueline Jones, professor, Department of History, and author of the forthcoming book, “A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America”
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech provided a goal that will happen when everyone takes an earnest role in eradicating the divisive impediments and systems that have saturated our communities throughout these United States. Significant progress has been made, but we still have more to accomplish.
—Philemon Brown, senior program coordinator and human resources counselor, Division of Housing and Food Services; president of the Black Faculty Staff Association
It has been said, “For Dr. King, race was in most things but defined nothing alone.” In 2013, some Americans may be surprised that race is still in most things, because its impact is often invisible to most people unless they have explored their awareness of race and related actions. Our refusal to see them as America’s problems precludes our search for an equitable solution for all. Fifty years hence, his prescient words poignantly remind us that we still have much work to do.
—Mark A. Gooden, associate professor, Department of Educational Administration; associate editor, “Urban Education”; director, The Principalship Program
Historical memories of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice rarely include its significance for many African American women. Despite appeals by National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) president Dorothy Height, the central organizing committee for the march refused to invite any women to speak at the event. Instead, they seated several women leaders on the platform in recognition of their crucial roles in mobilizing people to attend the march. Civil rights leader Pauli Murray later said, “What emerges most clearly from events of the past several months is the tendency to assign women to a secondary, ornamental or ‘honoree’ role instead of the partnership role in the civil rights movement which they have earned by their courage, intelligence and dedication.” For Murray, Height and others the movements for race and gender equality would henceforth be fused into one.
—Laurie Green, associate professor, Departments of History and African and
African Diaspora Studies, and author of the book, “Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle”
Martin Luther King Jr. was a troublemaker in the truest, best sense of the word. As is typically the case with his kind of troublemaking, we’ll always be just on the cusp of deciding if we’re actually ready to take him seriously.
—Imani Evans, public affairs specialist, Hogg Foundation for Mental Health
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech still resonates with us because it eloquently widened visions of American democracy and freedom. Yet, it is often the only speech many Americans recall when they reflect on Dr. King’s legacy. We must also engage some of his other extraordinary writings from the 1960s, such as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,“ “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” “Honoring Dr. DuBois,”and “I’ve been to the Mountaintop,” in order to fully appreciate his understanding of peace and social justice.
—Frank A. Guridy, associate professor, Departments of History and African and African Diaspora Studies; author of “Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow”
“I Have a Dream” is perhaps MLK’s most powerful speech rhetorically but not analytically. As King continued organizing in the 1960s, his political vision expanded and deepened, which was reflected in speeches that grew more radical. Yet for many Americans, that 1963 speech remains the only one they know. We have yet to achieve the “radical revolution of values” that King called for late in his life. The anniversary of the march and the speech is a time to reflect on the victories in the civil rights struggle to end apartheid in the United States and to be honest about the injustice that remains.
—Robert Jensen, professor, School of Journalism; author of “Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue” and “The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege”
While it is clear to me that we live in a different world from the one that provided the context for Martin Luther King’s speech 50 years ago, current events remind me we have far to go to fully realize his dream. His dream, his words, provide me with a destination and goal as I determine the work and tasks I choose to focus on each day.
—Ixchel Rosal, director, Gender and Sexuality Center; interim director, Multicultural Engagement Center
In King’s memorable “I Have a Dream” speech, he said: “1963 is not an end but a beginning.” Yet, 50 years later poverty is more pronounced. Indeed, could King have anticipated the nation’s changing demographics for as he also said in that 1963 speech: “for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
—Juliet E. K. Walker, professor, Department of History; founder/director Center for Black Business, History, Entrepreneurship, and Technology; IC2 Institute Jack D. Wrather Jr. Centennial Fellow; IC2 Gerhard J. Fonken Endowed Research Fellow
While “I Have a Dream” was indeed a powerful speech we must remember that it was for a specific purpose at a specific time. We must also remember that the MLK who gave that speech in 1963 was not the same MLK by 1966.
—Leonard Moore, professor, Department of History, and associate vice president for Academic Diversity Initiatives
The March on Washington demanded far-reaching changes in law, education, economics and politics. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech fused a passionate plea for change with a strong commitment to civility and respect for the dignity of all citizens, even those with whom he disagreed. As he inspired listeners “to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges,” King also reminded his followers: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” We would do well, today, if we learned to pursue passionate change with more civility and much less bitterness and hatred.
—Jeremi Suri, professor, Department of History and LBJ School of Public Affairs