Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.
Christopher Columbus discovered America.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a “dream.”
We like to remember history in short and snappy bumper-sticker sound bites. Real life is a bit more complicated.
Columbus “discovered” a “New World” that was new to him anyway, not to the people who already lived in it.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did free slaves in the states that seceded. He had to prod, cajole, bribe and browbeat Congress to free the rest.
And the Rev. Dr. King did have a “dream” that he described eloquently at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago. But more important, he had an agenda.
He described his dream so powerfully and memorably in the concluding portion of his 16-minute speech that it has been too easy for the rest of us to forget the agenda that he laid out in the earlier part.
That’s understandable. The magnetic invitation of King’s majestic words, delivered with a drumbeat refrain of “I have a dream...,” quite properly deserves a top-shelf position in the canon of American oratory.
With generous references to the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, King grounded his speech, not in radical notions of social change but as a fulfillment of the nation’s founders’ noblest ideals. His dream, as he put it, was “as old as the American dream.”
And the story of how its closing “dream” refrain almost didn’t happen has become legendary in civil rights circles. As Clarence B. Jones, who helped King draft speeches, describes it, King had a major-megaton case of writer’s block over how to end his speech. He was the final speaker of the day and wanted to leave his audiences -- on the Washington Mall, in the White House and in homes across America -- inspired. But how?
As he reached the end of his remarks in front of the huge crowd, King began to improvise and the answer came in a woman’s voice. The iconic gospel queen Mahalia Jackson shouted over the crowd: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
He did. Like an oratorical jazz musician, he smoothly segued into an improvised version of the “dream” refrain that he had used to great effect in speeches earlier that year. It has since come to define King’s entire career in our collective memory, especially this often-quoted line: “I have a dream that my four 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.”
Conservatives in particular like to quote that line to argue against any social policies or programs that would take race into account. Yet using King’s “dream” to argue against race-based remedies is almost as intellectually dishonest as quoting Lincoln to argue in favor of slavery.
When King talks earlier his speech, for example, about the “promissory note” that the founders wrote in this nation’s founding documents, he wasn’t talking about a used car loan.
To see King’s agenda detailed on that special day 50 years ago you have to turn to the organizing manual for the march. It listed 10 demands. Seven concerned issues of racial discrimination that were fulfilled in the civil rights, voting rights and fair housing legislation that President Lyndon Johnson would sign into law -- with strong Republican support, by the way, to get past stiff resistance from Southern segregationist Democrats.
Southern conservatives have since found a new home in the party of Abraham Lincoln. Political history is full of ironies.
Yet three of the march’s 10 demands concerned economic issues that remain timely today and not just for African Americans: a raise in the national minimum wage, an expansion of the Fair Labor Standards Act and “a massive federal program to train and place all workers -- Negro and white -- on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.”
Conservatives on talk radio and cable TV praise King’s memory today. But if he were still around, I imagine they would be accusing him of waging “class warfare” and “playing the race card.” Names change but the political game stays the same.