YP One man’s dream that waits for a happy ending
published in the Yorkshire Post 28 August 2013
Fifty years ago today Martin Luther King delivered one of the greatest speeches in history.
Around 280,000 people heard it as participants in a giant March on Washington DC, and millions more have claimed that they were there in the years since, or at least heard it broadcast live.
King was in two minds about using his great exordium: “I have a dream…” It had figured frequently in his speeches and some advisers thought that it had gone stale. King’s alternative speech was powerful but not igniting the crowd. His favourite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, urged him to “give them the dream”. It transfixed him and all his listeners.
King’s audience had marched against a host of evils. Segregated housing, education, hospitals, transport, hotels, cinemas, restaurants, even parks … black children and students kept away from schools and colleges by white gunmen… “Jim Crow” laws which used bogus tests to keep black voters off the electoral rolls… false imprisonment and brutality for protesters… young black people murdered, the white perpetrators unpursued and unpunished… All these things may now seem as remote as slavery, but they all happened within living memory, in the America celebrated in Happy Days.
However, the “dream” passages did not attack these evils directly, still less call for any specific remedy. Rather they sought to unite all fair-minded and patriotic Americans behind shared aspirations. Like other great radicals, King appealed to a golden past, the foundation of the American republic.
Although black voters had contributed greatly to Kennedy’s wafer-thin election win in 1960, his administration had been cautious on civil rights. The March and King’s speech spurred him into sending comprehensive legislation to Congress, but it remained stalled in Southern-dominated committees. His Texan successor, Lyndon Johnson, understood Southerners and Congress better. He disliked King personally but formed a working alliance with him, and pushed through far-reaching legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 toughened Kennedy’s proposals to outlaw segregation in public housing, schools and employment and to prevent states using literacy tests to disenfranchise black voters.
Johnson’s authority and control over Congress were boosted by his landslide win in the election of 1964. Prompted by King’s March in Alabama in support of black voter registration (and the violent response of the local sheriff), Johnson successfully promoted a tougher Voting Rights Act. It barred all the devices used to exclude black voters from registration, introduced new enforcement machinery and required Southern states with a bad record to submit all proposed electoral administration changes to prior federal scrutiny.
In less than a year, a quarter of a million black voters were registered in the South. When Johnson took office, around three quarters of Southern black voters were excluded: when he left, this figure had fallen to around a third.
After Johnson’s legislative torrent, King turned to the eight million or more black Americans who had moved away from the South in the “Great Migration.” He campaigned in Northern cities against the poverty, joblessness, inferior schools and health care, poor housing and high rents, and aggressive policing which afflicted black people. But he made little headway. White working-class voters generally resisted him, swayed by fears of crime and the need to protect their own precarious social and economic status. When King was assassinated in 1968, by a white racist, Johnson’s Great Society programme against urban poverty had been badly compromised by the spending demands of the Vietnam war. King’s Gandhian approach and his pursuit of alliance with progressive white Americans were challenged by the separatist, confrontational Black Power ideology of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.
King left much unfinished business but for years it was assumed that his central legacy on civil rights and racial equality was permanent.
Two recent events have broken that assumption. A Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman after he shot dead an African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin. (This term was not in use in King’s time, and does not figure in his speech). There were many legal and indeed racial complexities in this case, but unquestionably it reminded many Americans of the era when white vigilantes were routinely acquitted after the murder of young black people.
Earlier the Supreme Court struck down the requirement under the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act, for prior scrutiny of electoral changes in named Southern states. Some cynics argued that the Court was right. It was no longer fair to discriminate against the South since so many non-Southern states under Republican control have recently attempted to exclude African-Americans, and other likely Democrat voters, such as Hispanics or students or recent immigrants or poor people generally. Their methods include restrictions on voter registration drives and early voting, unequal provision of voting stations, wrongful disqualifications of ex-felons and, above all, unfair rules on the provision of voter ID.
published in the Yorkshire Post 28 August 2013
Millions of people today across the world will listen reverentially to re-runs and recitals of Martin Luther King’s great speech. But much of his dream remains unaccomplished and much of that accomplished faces new threats.