Co-opting the Dream

On August 28, 1963, over 250,000 marched on Washington, D.C., for Jobs and Freedom, a monumental event planned by A. Phillip Randolph, with main organizer Bayard Rustin, and highlighted by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.  This year on August 26th 75,000 were expected to gather to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the March.  One of the speakers this year was Yolanda Renee King.  “If I could speak to my grandfather today, I would say, ‘I’m sorry we still have to be here to rededicate ourselves to finishing your work, and ultimately realizing your hidden dream.’” Indeed, many believe King’s dream has never been in greater jeopardy than today as white supremacists seem more emboldened than ever and regressive policies in education, affirmative action, and voting rights—to name just a few areas—are rising.

A few people who were actually at the 1963 March couldn’t help but notice the downsizing of the crowd, and though it’s difficult to find a final count—most reports saying just “thousands” or “tens of thousands—the numbers are still significant.  Much smaller commemoration events happened across the country, like the one shown in the brief VIDEO below.  On August 27th about 140 people gathered for a commemorative service at Chicago’s United Methodist “Temple,” then processed across the street to Daley Plaza, the giant front yard of Chicago’s City Hall.  We were dwarfed by the Plaza, but I’ve seen many much smaller rallies there.  Anyway, a friend, Tom Butler, who’s on an anti-racism  committee I chair, has said that when it comes to fighting racism we need to think of “remnants,” not huge crowds.  I have said many, many times that Americans would rather talk about anything—anything—but race, and even fewer, only remnants, will be dedicated to fighting it over the long, long haul it will take to make a significant change.  In 2020, just before the Pandemic shut everything down, I spoke at a convocation, saying that IF we worked really hard, maybe in 40 to 100 years we’d see a less racist, more just and equitable United States.  I still stand by that timeframe, though one of the other speakers at that convocation said that while he respected me, he thought I was being way too optimistic.

This co-opting of “Black Lives Matter” is a famous contemporary example of avoiding issues of race. The same thing happened with MLK Jr.’s “I have a dream” and “The content of their character” phrases.

Just one impediment to progress is society’s attempt to dodge real talk and work on race by co-opting major ideas that fight racism and turning them into slogans to actually avert our attention from race. One of the most spectacular and well-known examples is the way “Black Lives Matter” was co-opted and changed to “All Lives Matter.”*  And MLK Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech has also been similarly co-opted.

By now, many people have noted that “I Have A Dream” was easily made into the warm and fuzzy speech of the Civil Rights Movement.  Everyone can relate to having a dream, so it was easy to cuddle up to that phrase and forget that MLK Jr. was trying to tie that phrase specifically to matters of race, not just having any old dream.  But the phrase that perhaps has been co-opted to do the most damage to the fight against racism comes from this sentence in his speech: “”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.”  “The content of their character.” The black intellectual Shelby Steel used it as the title to one of his books, a fairly naieve one I think.  It has been co-opted to justify policies that have gone against many of the major programs, like affirmative action, that have fought racism and discrimination in dozens of areas of American life.  It justifies just skipping over color entirely, as if the color of one’s skin didn’t pose an enormous barrier to actually seeing through to any person’s character.  Ironically, more and more whites seem to see the idea of white privilege as something which blinds people to their true character, again as if whiteness doesn’t matter as much as character.  Surely, color shouldn’t matter as much, but it does. It is a roadblock that must be dealt with before we can cuddle up to the idea of character.

* I deal with the damaging effects of saying “All Live Matter” in my sermon “Three Things to Stop Saying.”
More and more many people see King’s “Riverside Sermon” as his most courageous speech. My son Daniel and I set samples of this speech to music, listen HERE. Links in this post will lead to an article on the speech itself.  In it he spoke of the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation.
Go to the Lead Post in the anti-racism workshop Becoming the Beloved Community, and to the Diversity Training and Teaching page on this site.

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One Response to Co-opting the Dream

  1. Amania Drane says:

    Love this! Thanks for your insight, Richard.

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