On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, three civil rights experts consider the issues he would raise in 2013.
“What’s striking about the speech is how much of it remains relevant. Certainly Dr. King would not be talking about a sweltering summer of demonstrations, because we live in a much quieter time. But the rest of the speech he could readily give today. For example, in the first part of his address, he essentially carries on a dialogue with Thomas Jefferson as to whether the country has lived up to the ideal of the Declaration of Independence. I think he’d insist that we are still some distance from that ideal. Fifty years later, we haven’t committed ourselves to ridding America of poverty and all its destructive social consequences. He would be particularly surprised that a half century after a freedom movement overcame the southern Jim Crow system, there are too many African-Americans whose freedom is limited by a criminal justice system that incarcerates blacks at a far higher rate than whites for similar offenses. It’s deeply ironic that a freedom movement has culminated in a situation in which large segments of the black community are imprisoned or on parole and thus still not free in the most fundamental sense. He would still be longing for that day when we will let freedom ring, ‘from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city.’”
Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson is the editor of King’s papers and the author of Martin’s Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“It seems to me Dr. King would speak out about the 99 percent. For the past two generations, we’ve seen a growing gap between the middle class and the people at the top. We’ve lost the generational mobility that made this country great. And that’s not a problem only for the middle class. Dr. King would see that poor people are now almost fixed in place because the middle class is diminishing, and there’s less opportunity to move up. He would still be talking about social justice in the broadest way. Remember, race was by no means his only concern. In his view, poor white people were as important to America’s future as poor black people. He would take every opportunity to put the plight of the middle class and the problem of poverty at the top of the country’s agenda, which is exactly what we need today. Occupy Wall Street got people’s attention with this issue. Some polls showed that the majority of Americans agreed with the protesters. But they lacked a credible leader. Nobody came forward. Dr. King was the sort of brilliant leader who could make that issue come alive.”
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) is a civil rights and feminist leader and former chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“Dr. King would be talking about the need for quality education for all the nation’s youth. He would argue that while we managed to eject Jim Crow from public accommodations, we did not remove it from public schools. He understood the plight of sharecroppers who lived their entire lives without government-protected constitutional access to a fundamental right on which all other rights depend: the right to vote. He would argue that education is also a constitutional right, and that allowing Jim Crow public schooling–meaning that poor kids don’t have the same access to resources as privileged kids–is effectively condemning those children to similar lives of hopeless poverty, especially in the information age.”
Bob Moses is the founder and president of the Algebra Project Inc. and was the director of the Mississippi Voting Rights campaigns of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1961 to 1965.