Do We Teach the Right Part of “I Have a Dream”?

One of the most inspiring projects I worked on last year was a lesson focusing on the song “Glory,” by Common and John Legend. The Oscar-winning hit was written to accompany the 2014 film Selma, which recounts Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. I began developing the lesson by browsing the resources Teachrock.org already offers on Dr. King. Among the various photos and videos available on the site, I found footage of the 1963 March on Washington, when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

As I watched the clip, I felt a tinge of guilt. I know of the speech, and I’m sure I have seen footage of it hundreds of times—but I never actually read it in its entirety. I found a transcript of the complete speech online, and quickly discovered that I am only familiar with the final few parts of it, when Dr. King famously outlines his dream for a more just and equitable United States. But as a whole, the speech only dwells on visions of the future at the very end. Most of it addresses the past and present.

I can understand why the last section of the speech has become the most well-known. The images Dr. King evokes when outlining his dream for the country are powerful. He speaks of former slaves and former slave owners sitting together at a table, of a land where people will be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and of “transforming the jangling discord of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” Dr. King’s vision of the future is beautiful, and beautifully articulated.

Yet, no matter how inspirational or eloquent a dream may be when it is envisioned, without hard work it forever remains just that: a fantasy, pleasantly imagined but never realized. Dr. King assuredly understood this fact, and devotes the entire middle portion of his speech in Washington not to utopian visions of the future, but to addressing the grim realities of the present. It is in this part of the speech that he acknowledges that, as of 1963, black people could not sleep in the same hotels as whites, that black children were degraded daily by signs telling them “whites only,” that the only social mobility available to a black Americans was “from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,” and that “the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believed he has nothing for which to vote.”

In reaction to these injustices, Dr. King does not make dreams, he makes demands. “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” he says to the audience, “now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. . .There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue until the bright days of justice emerge.”

Dr. King also realizes that the more profound the dream may be, the more dangerous it is to attempt to achieve. In the same portion of the speech, he acknowledges the sacrifices that have already been made to end injustice. He recognizes those activists in the audience who “have come fresh from narrow jail cells. . .from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.” Yet he urges these “veterans of creative suffering” to “not wallow in the valley of despair,” but to “go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

Perhaps most importantly, in this middle portion of his speech Dr. King reminds his audience that “We cannot walk alone” on the path towards justice, that the destiny of whites and blacks in America are tied together, that the freedom for one is “inextricably bound” to the freedom of the other.

While reading this speech in full, I was reminded of one of the guiding motivations for the Teachrock project: what Steven Van Zandt calls “teaching in the present tense,” the idea of not telling students that the skills they are learning in school can be used sometime in the future, but encouraging them to see the ways they are useful to the present. There is nothing wrong with having a dream, but it is better to have a plan of action. Perhaps the refrain students should take away from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech during the March on Washington is not “I have a dream,” but rather “now is the time.”

Ben Dumbauld
Project Manager
Teachrock.org