As everyone knows, today we mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s historic “I have a dream” speech given on the 28th August 1963.
King managed to gather a crowd of 250,000 activists to a march on Washington for jobs and freedom. Listening to his speech today, one is still moved by King’s ability to move a crowd with his vision of hope and change. Yet, if one listens carefully, the dream he so famously had was nothing really new, it demanded no novel ideals or values. He dreamed only that the American state would finally live up to the most basic values on which it was founded. Moreover, this is the same dream he had been dreaming for nearly a decade, and continued to dream until his assassination on March 29, 1968. By then his dream had widened to include all races on the ‘Poor Peoples Campaign’.
So why did Dr. King dream for so long? Surely, he could have led a simpler life and followed his fathers path and been a regular Baptist preacher, or a scholar and spent his life writing books about justice instead of marching and facing the battering rams in the struggle for justice. Dr. King was reluctantly sweep into the civil rights movement after he led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. These were not glamorous times for political campaigning; they were brutal, poor, oppressive times. During his campaigning life he was abused, his home bombed and arrested and jailed 29 times.
At the time of his his 13th arrest he wrote a letter to his wife and supporters who were pleading for him to alter his political strategy by arguing … “we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny – I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be …. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Over the past six months we have seen the racist murder of an elderly Muslim man and the bombing three mosques in the Midlands, the continuing growth of the far right, revelations about the levels of police surveillance of innocent campaigners in this country, austerity cuts ripping apart poor communities, young men killed not only by racists but people from their own communities. If one is not moved to get involved in community activism now, then when?
As Dr. King understood, to fight oppression we have to build an infrastructure of mutuality, different people lives are tied together and you only fight injustice and build a communities if we support and invest in each other. Dr. King wrote to his supporters because knew that people were afraid to get involved, because by doing so it might diminish their own road to success, yet he argues this is false, he knew the civil rights movement needed the support of everyone, including moderate Americans, to succeed, and in the end he took the movement to poor white Americans. The Poor People’s Campaign was a innovative step for the black civil rights movement.
On the 50th Anniversary Dr. King’s speech we know his message and his political movement will be mythologised, the historical context forgotten,the role of community activism forgotten, yet as community activists we should reclaim the legacy of Dr. King as we are “all tied In a single garment of destiny”.
You can read his ‘Letter from a jail in Birmingham’ here – Letter from jail in Birmingham Martin Luther king pdf
You can view the full ‘I have Dream’ speech here
Martin Luther King and the march on Washington is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm – see link