Dr. King's 'Dream' and the 'promissory note' to black Americans

OPINION - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech is one of the most important pieces of oratory in American history. Every year, countless thousands of school children commit the speech to memory...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the most important pieces of oratory in American history. Every year, countless thousands of school children commit the speech to memory.

It is also the cornerstone of our enduring national conversations about race relations. Most invocations of the speech in the public square focus on the lyrical stanza where King outlines his hopes that his children will “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

What we have paid less attention to in the 44 years since he was assassinated is the fourth passage of the speech, where Dr. King stated that African-Americans and their allies had come to Washington to cash a “promissory note,” written by the framers of the Constitution to all Americans, at the “bank of justice.”

In using this language, King was drawing on a long tradition in black political thought that highlighted the reality that African-Americans had been largely excluded from the American Dream despite the fact that they had been model citizens of the republic since the founding. In this same verse, King demands that America replace the bounced checks — “marked with insufficient funds”— that it had issued to its black citizens for more than 300 years with “a check that will give [blacks] upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

It is easy to understand why Americans have forgotten this segment of the speech. After all, the March on Washington took place in the context of the massive resistance movement and spiraling terrorist violence in the South. So, the nation was primed for the dimensions of Dr. King’s message that focused on combating the visceral hatred that fed the Jim Crow system.

Moreover, King’s references in this part of the speech are easily translatable to policy prescriptions. Since social science research has told us for decades that Americans are far more comfortable embracing the abstract principles of racial toleration and equality than policies designed to actually promote these conditions, it is not all surprising that we have forgotten how to find the “bank of justice.”

The most important factor leading us to overlook this dimension of the speech is the remarkable progress we have made as a nation in the forty years between the assassination of Dr. King and President Obama’s ascendancy to the White House. Indeed, it is easy to imagine that Dr. King would have joined the surviving members of his inner circle in weeping openly at the sight of President Obama, a man with the blood of both Africans and slaveholders coursing through his veins, taking the reigns of power in a nation that they fought so hard to democratize.

There is also little doubt that Dr. King would see the fact that the black unemployment rate has remained twice the rate for whites for three decades as evidence that African-Americans still have not received full payment on the framers’ “promissory note.”

So, what would Dr. King be doing today to draw payment from the bank of racial justice? I imagine that Dr. King, who was always a tactical innovator, would be using his unparalleled oratorical skills in the new media environment to shift American public opinion about the connection between our social and economic policies and racial justice back toward the progressive consensus that existed in the middle of the twentieth century.
He would certainly challenge the dishonest assertion by conservatives that his “I Have a Dream” speech was a call for colorblind public policies.

More importantly, King would likely point out how his claims against the “bank of justice” were not calls for “hand outs” or unjustified “racial preferences” but a demand for public policies that redressed the fact that the racial gaps that exist in American society are a function of governmental actions that transferred land, cash, jobs and privileges exclusively to whites for most of the history of the republic.

In other words, King’s speech provides us with a construct that urges Americans to think about not just what we need to do to bring African-Americans into parity with whites but also what America did for whites that led to these racial gaps in the first place.

MSNBC is currently running a brilliant series of commercials featuring Lawrence O’Donnell, in which he extolls the virtues of social policies like the G.I. Bill of Rights for World War II veterans in building a stable middle class in America. If Dr. King were alive, I could imagine him doing a similar commercial where he points out (what social scientists have discovered in recent years) that this pinnacle of New Deal policy-making excluded 85 percent of African-American families because the U.S. military was not desegregated until after World War II.

In short, I believe that Dr. King would spend a great deal of time demonstrating how such transfers to whites in the Jim Crow era are the source of the racial gaps that we see in modern American life. He would undoubtedly also be asking the question: What can the “bank of justice” do to fix this reality?

As he predicted shortly before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King did not get to the mountaintop with us. Despite this sad fact, his moral and intellectual legacies continue to inform our efforts to forge a more just society.

As we continue to grapple with persistent racial inequalities, I urge all Americans to dig deeper into Dr. King’s words for guidance. We can begin this important work by remembering both dimensions of his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Alvin Tillery is an assistant professor of American politics at Rutgers University. His forthcoming book is entitledDefending the Home Fronts: Africa, U.S. Foreign Policy, and Black Representation in America,1816-2000, with Cornell University Press.