US struggles with race 50 years after King’s 'I have a dream'

Half a century ago today, Martin Luther King galvanised a national movement


Fifty years ago Washington DC had braced itself for the worst. The day before the March on Washington, the District of Columbia cancelled sales of alcohol for the first since Prohibition. John F Kennedy’s administration had 4,000 riot police ready in the suburbs and 15,000 paratroopers on alert.

Hospitals in the US capital cancelled all elective surgeries that day and had stockpiled plasma. Judges prepared for all-night bail hearings to deal with the arrests expected during the march. Life Magazine said Washington had not such pre-invasion nerves since the Civil War a century earlier.

None of these scenarios came to pass. The March brought about 250,000 people, including between 75,000 and 95,000 white people, on to the National Mall running through the city for a peaceful protest demanding equality for all Americans but primarily for African-Americans. It was a seminal moment in the US civil rights movement. In the end, just four people were arrested; all were white.

The “I Have A Dream” speech by the civil rights leader Martin Luther King jnr, then just 34 years old, will be commemorated today when President Barack Obama, America’s first black president, will stand where King stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington Mall and recall his words.

Departed from script
Among the other speakers at the tribute will be former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, celebrities and actors Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker, and the Georgia congressman John Lewis, who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington.

On this day a half-century ago King departed from his prepared script – seemingly after gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, a performer on the day, shouted to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” – and spoke about a vision he had of a time when America would be colour-blind to race.

Nine times King uttered the words, “I have a dream”, during a 17-minute address that transformed the race issue from a blacks-versus- whites problem in the southern states into a national movement.


King travelled to Washington to deliver an indictment of the US. Using a metaphor that will be familiar to Irish people given our recent economic crisis, King argued that America had defaulted on “a promissory note” in the Declaration of Independence pledging freedom for all men. The marchers had come to cash their bounced cheque, he said.

Recent controversies show King’s dream remains unrealised. The mass protests over the acquittal of the killer of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin and the Supreme Court’s striking down of a landmark 1965 voting Act designed to protect minority voters are cases in point. Unemployment among minority races remains higher than in other sections of society, while black Americans face disproportionate police actions and court sentences.

More to do
The Pew Research Centre found that 49 per cent of Americans say “a lot more” needs to be done to achieve the dream. For Republicans, 35 per cent say “a lot” still needs to be done; the figure rises to 63 per cent for Democrats.

“Obviously the dream has not been realised. We have made a lot of progress but we are a long way from it,” said Dr E Faye Williams, national chairwoman of the National Congress of Black Women.

There are no African-American women in the Senate, she says, and she is keen that Obama will one day appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court. She hopes the 50th anniversary commemoration will “inspire us to do more and to do better” and that the president will speak today about what he could do by way of executive order to restore protective measures for minorities in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Republican governor of the southern state of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, the first Indian-American to serve as a governor in the US and potential future presidential candidate, wrote in an article on the Politico website this week that America still remained divided, despite the progress achieved since King’s famous speech on August 28th, 1963, and he called for an end to race divisions in America. “We still place far too much emphasis on our ‘separateness’, our heritage, ethnic background, skin colour etc,” he said.

“We live in the age of hyphenated Americans: Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Indian-Americans and Native Americans, to name just a few. Here’s an idea: how about just ‘Americans’?”

Race dominates American politics, though it is rarely addressed in public. Even a black president has spoken only occasionally about his experiences of being African-American, most notably after the recent acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman.

Racial make-up
Congressional districts feeding the House of Representatives have been reshaped into homogenous political constituencies mirroring their racial make-up; the average Republican district has 50 per cent more white people, while the average Democratic district has twice as many non-white constituents. This has jammed up Congress.

“The unaddressed question in American politics is: to what degree is partisan gridlock driven, underneath, by racial and ethnic division?” said the Pulitzer-prize winning author Taylor Branch, best known for his landmark history of the civil rights era, America in the King Years.

“I’d give anything to sit for a while and ask President Obama what he thinks, on issue after issue where there is partisan gridlock, how much of that is racially driven.”

The focus today will be on Obama and what he might say on a platform that 50 years ago Martin Luther King used to galvanise a movement.

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