The Bankrupt Vaults of Justice

“Insufficient Funds” still the by-words

The 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech has arrived (and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation) and commentators are tripping over themselves lauding the accomplishments springing from the speech, confusing ‘black faces in high places’ with economic progress of the poorest elements of society.

Conflating improvements in segregation/integration with progress in class mobility is not a mistake Rev. Dr. King would have made and neither should we.

This speech, incidentally, is consistently rated by scholars of American history as the country’s most significant 20th century political speech. Once he got talking King deviated from the original prepared speech. Many of his most eloquent passages were extemporaneous injections from prior speeches as comparison of the filmed speech to his original, printed version reveals. This is especially true toward what was supposed to be the end of the speech when the singer Mahalia Jackson blurted out, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” After a few sentences and Mahalia’s repeated exhortation King moved his prepared lines aside. His training as a black minister came to the fore and the rest, as they say, is history. But, as all history, it is one where black and white Americans see and hear different ideas in the same narrative with identical words.

FBI assistant director William Sullivan, after the speech, noted “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

I rode my motorcycle from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. to the 25th anniversary celebrations of the March. En route I joined a column of black bikers without knowing who they were, it was just company and a cushion of motor safety on the massively trafficked interstate. When we neared New York Avenue the column got off and, as I was going to the anniversary event, so did I. We all filed into the Mall area and parked. My companions were a biker club from Staten Island, NY. The president had been to the original March in 1963 and was returning with his club members for the 25th.  Very nice.

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