Interpreting the legacy of King's 'dream'

By Leslie King | Emory Report | Sep. 3, 2013

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Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Aug. 28, 1963. Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives/flickr.

As America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) remembers well that day in 1963, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.  

In his AJC Decatur Book Festival keynote on Aug. 30 at Emory’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, Lewis recalled standing on those very steps before King’s historic address to share his own impassioned speech.  

Fifty years after that momentous event, Lewis continues his work, now with a graphic novel, "March (Book One)," the first in a trilogy about the civil rights movement in the United States.  

Inspired by the words and leadership of King, Lewis found a way to "get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. We didn't give up. We didn't give in. We believed in the way of peace, the way of love, of nonviolence," he told the full house at the Schwartz Center.  

Describing his own mission in the civil rights movement, Lewis said, "We wanted to create what Martin Luther King called 'the beloved community'."

"For those who've said nothing has changed, I say come and walk in my shoes. I will show you that our country is a different country and we are a better people," Lewis said.  

He hopes that his book will motivate readers to "be prepared to march, walk, stand, be inspired to act ... We need to find a way to make some noise."  

Emory reflections  

Fifty years later, what is the legacy of the March on Washington? What parts of King's dream are fulfilled; what parts have yet to be realized; and what is the obligation of American citizens, including the Emory community?

Here are some perspectives on the legacy of the dream:  

Noel Erskine, professor of ethics and theology at Candler School of Theology:  

"I suppose as a university we could begin to ask, ‘How do we talk about the dream in the 21st century, post-Obama? Where are we as a university on some of these issues for which King stood and fought and talked about in his dream?’ We have ethical commitments as a university. We can't let ourselves off the hook.  We have to face some of these issues that King faced. I think a university has a responsibility to provide leadership in thought to help people think through some of these issues. The issues that were in 1963, I think it's more complex now.  Is there a new way to talk about race?"  

Carol Anderson, associate professor of African American Studies and history:  

"The nation has treated Martin Luther King’s 'I Have a Dream' speech as a triumph.  A healing catharsis.  A kumbaya moment.  A Coca-Cola ad.  In reality it was a clarion call that American democracy was badly, horrifically broken.  During the March on Washington in 1963, he surveyed the 'appalling condition' of a national landscape choked with barriers to voting, education, housing, health care, jobs, and equal justice. King stressed the need to respond to the 'urgency of now.'  That, however, did not happen.  Instead, 50 years later, we look out only to find additional barriers, albeit more sophisticated, that continue to thwart the promise of American democracy. Or, as we noted in the SCLC exhibit at Woodruff Library, 'And the struggle continues'…"

Kathleen Cleaver, senior lecturer at Emory School of Law. Cleaver worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1966) and was communications secretary of the Black Panther Party (1967-71):  

"One name sums up our repudiation of King's dream of black and white boys and girls walking together as brothers and sisters: George Zimmerman. Too many contemporary policies, criminal laws and police practices in our society sustain social and legal protection for the white killers of black boys. In our country a black person gets killed every 36 hours. One means to curtail the escalation of bloodshed would be for universities, colleges and schools to make the study of nonviolence, conflict resolution, and community building requirements for graduation."  

Carlton Mackey, assistant director of the D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership, the assistant coordinator for undergraduate studies, and chair of the Ethics & the Arts Initiative at the Center for Ethics. Mackey is also founder of the "50 Shades of Black" project:  

"To King belonged a dream that envisioned little black boys and little black girls holding hands with little white girls and little white boys. But what happens when that hand holding leads to something else? What happens when a little black boy from South Georgia holds hands with a little white girl from California and they produce a little light-skinned, curly brown-haired baby in the same city Dr. King was reared in? What happens if the world, which still sees things in black and white causes a son to start distancing himself from one aspect of his identity or another? What happens when the world — and eventually it will — forces him to choose or chooses for him which category he will exist in? Have we created a safe space in which to struggle for identity in a world where normativity in virtually all areas of identity (sexuality, gender, ability, ethnicity) is still the norm?"

Lawrence Jackson, professor of English and African American Studies:  

"My parents participated in the March on Washington and I suppose that they might have had some of that in mind when we visited Washington, D.C., as a family in 1976 for the July 4 Bicentennial.  At the same time I am uncomfortable with language like 'The Dream' because it isolates, limits and seals off King and the significant contribution he made to the U.S.  It also erases the five turbulent years of his life following the speech, which more or less ruined the dream that he had about shared economic prosperity. Our responsibilities as a university are rather obvious.  What are our permanent, renewing and consistent ties to the institutions that produced King and which he was a part of?  We have better ties to Chinese universities than we do to local colleges.  How do we shape the destiny of area secondary students?    How do we contribute to making tertiary education more affordable to the citizens of the country, perhaps especially those whose ancestors lived here before 1865 and came as a result of forced and genocidal migration?"  

Dona Yarbrough, associate vice provost for community and diversity, and director of the Emory Center for Women:

"Universities have long helped to keep King’s dream alive through research, scholarship, teaching and archives focused on civil rights movements and social justice. Our challenge is to engage in ways that have a more direct, public impact: by supporting community-based research and public scholarship, championing civic engagement, eliminating unfairness in our own hiring and admissions practices, and finding practical solutions to inequality."