Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” remains a by-word


As I See It


January 21 is Martin Luther King Day! This day, a national holiday, we are celebrating his many contributions to the country as a civil rights leader towards the end of the 18th century and the 19th century. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 made gains and somehow contributed, in my mind, to two major legislations — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“I Have a Dream” was a very persuasive public speech delivered by King during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. He called for civil and economic rights and an end to racism in the United States — two major issues affecting the country at that time. I had a fruitful time with my students discussing his many contributions to the civil rights movement and students reciting his “I Have a Dream” speech. Even in modern times, his dream speech keeps on reverberating, inspiring, and giving hopes to many people.

Prior to his time, in the 18th century, the civil rights movement started and the seed of the civil rights movement was planted and subsequently nurtured by movement leaders, including King. During his time, there were really major gains made by the movement and his presence in the movement was felt so heavily. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech suddenly became a by-word for equality, assertion of individual rights, and respect for person’s integrity regardless of race and color even up to the present time.

One will notice that after a year when the speech was delivered in 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by Congress, and after another year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was likewise passed, and both were signed into law by the president. The Civil Rights Act prevented employment discrimination due to race, color, sex, religion or national origin…

King and other civil rights activists witnessed the signing, which law guaranteed equal employment for all, among others.

The Voting Rights Act, on the other hand, prevented the use of literacy tests as a voting requirement and also allowed federal examiners to review voter qualifications and federal observers to monitor polling places.

These are two major gains the civil rights movement have accomplished!

According to history records, the civil rights movement was an organized effort by black Americans to end racial discrimination and gain equal rights under the law which began in the late 1940s and ended in the late 1960s. There were uproars of minds and feelings but the movement was mostly nonviolent at the end. In fact, it was noted that it resulted in laws to protect every American’s constitutional rights, regardless of color, race, sex or national origin.

Among other incidents which marked some impacts as far as the movement is concerned was that of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus on December 1, 1955. Her resistance to conform to the law, according to history books on civil rights, signaled a year-long Montgomery bus boycott as word of her arrest ignited outrage and support. With that, Parks unwittingly became the “mother of the modern day civil rights movement.” The same sources said Black community leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) led by Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr., which placed him at the thick of the fight for civil rights. And… the Parks-inspired bus strike lasted for 381 days until segregated seating was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The struggle for civil rights movement for blacks gained equal rights under the law in the United States and… while the Civil War had officially abolished slavery, it didn’t end discrimination against blacks. History records show that they continue to endure the devastating effects of racism, especially in the South. Hence, the unprecedented fight for equality continued because even though all Americans had gained the right to vote, many southern states made it difficult for blacks. They often required them to take voter literacy tests that were confusing, misleading and nearly impossible to pass. To show his commitment to the civil rights movement, the Eisenhower administration pressured Congress to consider new civil rights legislation.

The civil rights movement suffered setbacks with the loss of their two key leaders. On February 21, 1965, former Nation of Islam leader and Organization of Afro-American Unity founder Malcolm X was assassinated at a rally. On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on his hotel room’s balcony.

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According to Jack Lessenberry’s article published in 2013, which noted King’s successes and failures, “… to me, the most significant celebration of that speech came on the anniversary five years ago, when another powerful young black orator recited parts of it before a TV audience. That time it was not the quarter of a million people who heard it in 1963”.

Lessenberry asked the question: Did his dream come true? “Clearly”, he said, “in some ways, we may have exceeded his dream. We do have a black president. When African-Americans become heads of corporations or universities or governors or senators, it scarcely merits notice these days”.

All of King’s excellent accomplishments are a leader’s trophy he or she can truly be proud of to the extent that one would say, “Had Martin Luther King, Jr. run for US President, he should have been the first black President before President Barack Obama”! Well many claim he should have won and should have been the first black president, had he decided to run, but do you agree or disagree?

I beg to disagree though due to many reasons. Foremost of which, at that time, America was not yet ready for a black president. The political arena has been dominated by whites despite all the gains made by the civil rights movement and the emergence of black prominence was just beginning or was just hatched in the 60s, few years before the next presidential election. Besides, many black people had a hard time registering to vote not until in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed.

Besides, the civil rights movement was just starting to make gains and not yet ripe for the majority of the Americans. In fact, citizens were still adamant to voting those days.

Of course, King was not interested to run despite the prodding’s of many groups. This indecisiveness and wavering gesture, if ever he decided to run, contributes to his unlike ability to voters.

And… the country at that time was stuck in a prolonged war in Vietnam presided over by President Lyndon B. Johnson and King was not described as a proponent against the war.

His concentration and efforts were for civil rights and defending the black community. He was not known to be a serious anti-war candidate to challenge veteran Johnson in 1968.

All these said, while Martin Luther King, Jr. was a recognized civil rights leader, he was not known to be a political leader!

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