If you ask conservatives, the entirety of Dr. King’s legacy falls down to this passage: “I have a dream that 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.” It is all they know, and they use King’s words to work against the claims of racial justice that he was actually making. However, the “I Have a Dream” speech itself – let alone the activism we see displayed so prominently in the fantastic Selma – refutes the claims that conservatives want to impose on the Civil Rights Movement and King.
First, the claim that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s legacy all boils down to the “content of their character” line is vile neoliberalism on its own face. It’s to say that King just wanted a change in individual people’s hearts and not, you know, civil rights as a starting point to Black empowerment. White conservatives and moderates will often bring this passage out when talking about affirmative action and arrest and incarceration rates – where black people are negatively represented and affected. What they imply (if not outright say) is that black people have no character and that is why they’re denied access to colleges at alarming rates and why they end up incarcerated or at the business end of a police gun or baton also at alarming rates. It helps to expose this covert racism. You can identify overt racists who agree with that assessment and call them out (or leave the conversation). But more importantly, it allows a room for introspection for those who may have believed these ideas but then realize these ideas don’t measure up to their own humanity.
But let’s not stop there. Let’s rewind to the beginning of the speech (before he slipped into the memorable cadences):
One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
The White Conservative Mind is now: “Poverty” and “material prosperity”? Why is he talking about money? I thought it was all about water fountains! Why does he need to bring up money? Shouldn’t he be able to eat good character?
We have come to cash this check…
Whoa! What’s this about cashing checks now? If you thought White conservatives were upset before… Nothing scarier than a group of black people, unless they’re demanding stuff. And the worst? Checks! Black people and their checks! omg
— a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
“Riches”? “Freedom”? “Security”? “Justice”? Who do these people think they are, amirite?
These words mean something. And while this specific check is metaphorical for freedom and justice, there is no denying that the freedom and justice that the Civil Rights Movement was after was indeed tied to economic as well as political liberty. We are reminded of this in Selma: “Yes, we won the right to sit at the lunch counter with white people, but what good does that do for the black man who cannot pull out the change to buy a hamburger?” (Paraphrase) The right to vote is important in that it allows the class of people denied it the ability to be paid rightly for their work and to address violence directed at them by police, mob actions, and a criminal court system tooled to re-enslave them. What happens when that right is being stripped again away from people of color?
We must also understand what the words “justice” and “freedom” meant for King, for it is a different thing altogether than what “justice” means in an America that feels it is just to lock up more black men now than were living under slavery at the height of the institution. “Freedom” means something in a land where black people are severely restricted financially, educationally, and physically as both individuals and as a large segment of the population.
When White moderates and conservatives speak of King, they often use the word “equality.” Equality is a good word, but when you make fifty cents an hour and I make $50 an hour, paying the same price for the ride home or the same price for a meal or the same price for a hospital visit isn’t fair. That’s how “equality” is figured in the minds and rhetoric of conservatism: We’re equal because we pay the same. What we need is justice so that our wages and our wealth and our educational system are retooled. So that you have the same opportunities I do and vice versa. So this idea that Black people are now judged by the content of their character is not just meaningless, it’s a slap in the face of human decency.
Finally, from the familiar cadence:
We will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!”
Notice those words. All of the nations, all of the people, all of the creeds will join hands and sing not White songs of captivity but Black songs of freedom. Songs of liberation. Songs of the removal of slavery. Of empowerment. Songs of uplift and for movement and organizing strength writ and sung by black people for the express purpose of black liberation. Not songs of entertainment. Songs of courage and uplift sung by people who had defied the White Man’s rifle and whiplash and justice system to demand their freedom.
This is the legacy of King’s “I Have a Dream.” Let’s remind our friends.
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