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Martin Luther King’s Dream at 60

King offered Americans the choice between acting in accordance with the Constitution and resistance to change.  In many ways, we face the same choice today.

Sixty years ago today, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered perhaps the most celebrated speech in modern American history. The date was August 28, 1963, the occasion the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the place the Lincoln Memorial. We remember the speech largely for its memorable metaphors—“the whirlwinds of revolt,” “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”—and the urgency of King’s “dream” of a future America that had moved beyond the tyranny of race. King achieved a delicate balance between hope and despair, between anger at the Black condition and reassurance to other Americans that they had nothing to fear from the civil rights movement. All Americans would benefit from the dismantling of the decades-old structures of Jim Crow.

It is easy to forget how thoroughly American King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was. He wrapped himself, and the movement he had come to personify, in the mantle of core American values discernible in the most cherished documents of the national experience. In a little over 1,500 words, he managed to invoke the Emancipation Proclamation, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the patriotic song “America,” interspersed with the language and cadences of the Bible. When he first used the words “I have a dream,” he immediately added that it was “deeply rooted in the American dream.” It would be difficult to make the civil rights movement less threatening to white fellow citizens. King managed to make his call for a radical restructuring of American life familiar, indeed almost conservative.

King’s speech built on a tradition dating back to the American Revolution, when Black critics of the racial order chastised the country for not living up to its professed ideals, while at the same time claiming those ideals as their own. During the struggle for independence, Black petitioners cited the ideology of liberty to demand their own freedom. In pamphlets, sermons, and manifestos they insisted that, as one petition put it, “every principle from which America has acted” demanded the abolition of slavery. In the pre–Civil War decades, Black abolitionists and their white allies seized on Jefferson’s timeless pronouncement that “all men are created equal” as a weapon for abolition. Gatherings of free African Americans called themselves “conventions of colored citizens,” claiming a status enjoyed by white Americans but which the federal government denied to them. If white Americans could claim citizenship by birthright, the same principle should extend to African Americans born in the United States.