A dream that endures


Fifty years after his speech before a quarter of a million people to the United States capital the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King’s plea for equality and justice remains as powerful and immediate as ever. The words “I have a dream” were not part of his prepared text, most of which was a carefully-written indictment of the United States for giving black Americans what he called a bad cheque, a promissory note that had come back marked “insufficient funds”. Dr King insisted that the bank of justice could not be bankrupt. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this cheque, a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice,” he said.

As he approached the end of his prepared remarks, Dr King abandoned the script and launched into the extemporaneous peroration that has become one of the most celebrated examples of rhetoric in the English language. Using the musical cadences and repetitive refrains of a black church sermon, the civil rights leader made an emotional appeal for unity, elaborating a vision that people of all races could share in. It was a dream in which “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” and in the most-quoted words of the speech “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.

Dr King’s campaign of non-violent civil disobedience not only led to the end of racial segregation laws in the United States but inspired civil rights movements across the world, including in Northern Ireland. The success of the civil rights campaign prepared the way for other struggles for equality such as those on behalf of women, gays and people with disabilities. And the dream of equal rights he described before the Lincoln Memorial half a century ago remains a universal one.

Few of those who heard Dr King that day could have imagined an America with a black president but Barack Obama’s election, despite its immense symbolic importance, does not mean that the dream has been fulfilled. Four years after he took office, African-Americans remain twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, more than six times as likely to be incarcerated and their children are three times as likely to grow up in poverty.

At an anniversary rally in Washington last Saturday, the image most commonly seen on t-shirts was neither that of Dr King nor Mr Obama but of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager who was shot dead in Florida earlier this year and whose killer was allowed to walk free from court last month.