The Power of Dreams: Reflections on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

The articulation of visions of a new world into the language of dreams results from the inadequacy of dominant language/culture to otherwise give expression to these visions. Liberation theologist Leonardo Boff says of dreams, they claim the impossible in order to create more space for what is possible. They do so not by flights of fantasy, but taking the world as it is and then turning the dominant language back on itself. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a new improvisation on a familiar theme and through his voice it swept away the old order, and called forth a new one. 

50 years ago last week the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom brought over 200,000 people to the capital to demand support for new civil rights legislation and to make a collective stand for racial and economic justice. From an historical perspective the highlight of the day was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “I have a dream.” Our historical memory is, however, strained to recall more than a few lines from this speech, most notably these: “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.”

This speech, or rather these select lines from this one speech, have probably defined popular memory of Dr. King, and in some sense the civil rights movement, more than any other words. 

However, Dr. King’s “dream” was far more encompassing than a change in racial attitudes. King and his contemporaries recognized that racism was deeply embedded in institutions, had material consequences and reinforced systems of economic oppression – racism was and remains much more than the summation of individual bigotry. King’s dream and the dream of many of the 200,000 people in Washington D.C., 50 years ago was a radical reconstruction of society. 

In an of the March by William P Jones, he says:

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom…remains one of the most successful mobilizations ever created by the American Left. Organized by a coalition of trade unionists, civil rights activists, and feminists—most of them African American and nearly all of them socialists—the protest drew nearly a quarter-million people to the nation’s capital. Composed primarily of factory workers, domestic servants, public employees, and farm workers, it was the largest demonstration—and, some argued, the largest gathering of union members—in the history of the United States.That massive turnout set the stage not only for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which President John F. Kennedy had proposed two months before, but also for the addition to that law of a Fair Employment Practices clause, which prohibited employers, unions, and government officials from discriminating against workers on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or sex. And, by linking those egalitarian objectives to a broader agenda of ending poverty and reforming the economy, the protest also forged a political agenda that would inspire liberals and leftists ranging from President Lyndon Johnson to the Black Power movement. After watching organizer Bayard Rustin read the full list of demands, “while every television camera at the disposal of the networks was upon him,” left-wing journalist Murray Kempton remarked, “No expression one-tenth so radical has ever been seen or heard by so many Americans.” (emphasis added)

King’s speech coming toward the end of the day took on the tone of prophetic condemnation, coupled with a powerful vision of hope. It was not a speech of specific policy ideas – those speeches had already been made. It was a statement meant to elevate the crowd. The dream was and remains a powerful vision – and was part of a broad agenda of concrete actions that rested on a radical critique of U.S. society. Pulling a few lines out of context does a disservice to the March and to Dr. King.
The March on Washington
The for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom presented the following framework as the motivation for the march:


We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis. That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. They impose a special burden on the Negro, who is denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing. Discrimination in education and apprenticeship training renders Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other minorities helpless in our mechanized, industrial society. Lacking specialized training, they are the first victims of automation. Thus the rate of Negro unemployment is nearly three times that of whites. Their livelihoods destroyed, the Negro unemployed are thrown into the streets, driven to despair, to hatred, to crime, to violence. All America is robbed of their potential contribution. Despite this crisis, reactionary Republicans and Southern Democrats in Congress are still working to defeat effective civil rights legislation. They fight against the rights of all workers and minority groups. They are sworn enemies of freedom and justice. They proclaim states rights in order to destroy human rights. The Southern Democrats come to power by disfranchising the Negro. They know that as long as block workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will foil. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all. We march to demonstrate, massively and dramatically, our unalterable opposition to these forces-and to their century-long robbery of the American people. Our bodies, numbering over 100,000, will bear witness-will serve historic notice- that Jobs and Freedom are needed NOW. 

The freedom struggle encompassed an economic critique of the existing system, and was further articulated within the framework of human rights. The movement called for civil rights for African Americans, but with an argument that lifted up everyone. The destinies of black and white workers were entwined: “semi-slavery for one, means semi-slavery for all”! Age-long systemic marginalization and violence targeting African-Americans served the interests of the few by undermining working class solidarity. The marchers were there to say the time for change is now! Now! No more be patient, no more asking nicely (non-violence is not about being polite!). Now!

The March for Jobs and Freedom also presented a comprehensive set of demands. As noted above, the platform was ambitious, and sought to attack full on the economic roots of racial oppression.

  1. Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress-without compromise or filibuster-to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations decent housing adequate and integrated education the right to vote 2. Withholding of Federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. 3. Desegregation of all school districts in 1963. 4. Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment-reducing Congressional representation of states where citizens are disfranchised. 5. A new Executive Order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds. 6. Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated. 7. A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers-Negro and white-on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages. 8. A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour foils to do this.) 9. A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded. 10. A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.

Today movements hesitate to make concrete policy demands, much less set forth policy agendas this comprehensive. This at a time when half the Democratic caucus was leading the opposition on de-segregation, and Republican and Democrat leadership were both hesitant to endorse strong labor standards. And yet, much of this agenda became law over the next several years in legislation the benefitted all U.S. Americans.

Against this background of radical critique and far-reaching demands, King’s speech, “I have a dream” takes on a much stronger sense of urgency. The speech was not a call for reconciliation – it was a call for justice, now. 
America as dream
To provide further context for King’s speech at the March on Washington, it is useful to look at how King’s use of “the dream” was already well established. In 1961 Dr. King delivered the commencement address at Lincoln University; his title: . King begins this earlier speech by saying, “America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled.” The outlines of this dream are the “sublime” lines of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This is America’s dream of itself, and when we speak of Dr. King’s “dream” it is in essence one and the same: A United States of America that actually lives up to these words.

Ever since the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this noble dream, America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the principles of democracy, and on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very antithesis of those principles. Indeed slavery and segregation have been strange paradoxes in a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal.

As a country the United State can no longer accept this paradox. “[T]he shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of an anemic democracy. The price America must pay for the continued exploitation of the Negro and other minority groups is the price of its own destruction….[I]f America is to remain a first class nation she can no longer have second class citizens.”

This earlier dream speech previews themes that will be more fully developed in Dr. King’s later efforts against the Vietnam War, most notably in his speech . In this earlier version, however, King’s notion of “the dream” is already global. “Inalienable rights” are not limited by boundaries, and if the people of the United States take that seriously, they must extend their respect for these rights not just within the borders of the U.S. but beyond them as well.

[A]ll life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people cannot expect to live more than twenty or thirty years, no man can be totally healthy, even if he just got a clean bill of health from the finest clinic in America. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.

King’s vision is one of global democracy and human rights that demands respect for the integrity and dignity of all people (even if his language is horribly gendered in the fashion of the time). It is common to speak of King “becoming more radical” toward the end of his life. There is a kernel of truth, perhaps, related to his willingness to openly challenge the power brokers in Washington, and the Johnson administration itself on the war. But it seems to me that King, ever with a strategic eye toward Washington, was always willing to push further than the Beltway leadership was ready to go. King’s dream by 1963 was already a radical call to action, and in the context of the March on Washington, was pushing much further than Kennedy was ready to go.
I have a dream today…
The opening lines of Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom cover the earlier territory – the United States was founded on a promise – a promise that has not been kept. The backdrop for the speech is a reflection on the date, August 28, 1963, the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (the importance of this date I have not seen mentioned often in reflections about the March this week). The Proclamation was a great beacon of hope, yet,

…one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition

The marchers have come to Washington D.C. to cash a check – to demand payment on that promise made long before, but only to find the government denying payment, saying “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

King then says, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” 

Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

This is the context for “the dream.” 

Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.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. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

The United States has failed. And yet in the face of that failure, we will not be turned back. We will demand justice. Despite all of the obstacles, the violence, and the hatred, Dr. King can still proclaim, “I have a dream today.” America can be made whole.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.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.I have a dream today.I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.I have a dream today.I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is a liturgy, literally a celebration, proclaiming what is possible in the face of brutality. And with this proclamation of hope, a call to return to the work of justice:

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. 

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was not an end point. It would be months before the Civil Rights Act passed. Just three-weeks later four little girls would be killed in a bomb blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL and in the face of that violence, people would say don’t press so hard, give it time. The Movement kept pressing, and over the next several years would see enacted key civil rights and anti-poverty legislation. The Civil Rights Movement transformed politics in the United States, but much work is left to be done. 

The challenge before us today is to recapture the imperative of dreams. Human relationships on this planet are broken by poverty and violence. It may seem impossible in that context to proclaim a world where all people live with the respect and dignity they are naturally entitled to as human beings. It may seem folly to profess a world of justice in the face of so many instances of injustice. Yet, without the dream, without commitment to a vision around which we can build the concrete initiatives that will build a world more justly loving, without pressing the limits of the “impossible” to make room for the possible, we are truly lost. In commemorating the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom this week let us reclaim the power of dreams. And with that, the necessity of action to realize them. 

Postscript: For some inspiration that the Dream has been recaptured, check out director of the Dream Defenders Phillip Agnew’s after his and Sofia Campos’ time was cut from the events marking the anniversary of the March last week. Are you ready?