2013 Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium Planning Committee Theme Statement:
50 Years Later: (R)Evolution of the Dream
On August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C., the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a seventeen-minute speech calling for an end to racial discrimination. His oration, later known as the “I Have A Dream speech,” was the culmination of “The March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Dr. King delivered his first version of the speech in Detroit on June 23, 1963, outside Cobo Hall after leading 125,000 people in the “Walk to Freedom” down Woodward Avenue.
In his most famous speech, at the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King described the condition of the African American as “sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination… liv[ing] on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity… languishing in the corners of American society and… exile[d] in his own land.” King’s description of the African American’s ability to hew out of the “mountain of despair” a “stone of hope” exemplified his faith that one day the African American would share equally the deeply rooted American dream of democratic rights, equal opportunity and economic security.
Dr. King’s dream was not a succession of images, thoughts and emotions passing through his mind while asleep, but an affirmation of faith and hope that evolved from previous dreamers and movements:
- a dream of the American colonists that they could fight for and gain freedom from English rule and pursue happiness in the 1700s
- a dream in the 1800s of the abolitionists and the enslaved in America that slavery could be eliminated
- a dream from the women’s’ movement in the 1900s that women could aspire to the same rights and freedom as men, particularly the right to vote
Dr. King referenced the “American Dream” during a speech delivered at Drew University on February 5, 1964. “America is essentially a dream, a dream yet unfulfilled. The substance of the dream is expressed in some very familiar words found in the Declaration of Independence. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is a dream.”
In his Drew University speech, Dr. King stated that the “American Dream,” as suggested in the Declaration of Independence, “is an amazing universalism. It does not say some men, it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men, which includes black men. It does not say all Protestants, but it says all men, which includes Catholics. It doesn’t say all Gentiles, it says all men, which includes Jews.” Dr. King went on to note that the American dream is distinguished from other forms of government in that each individual has certain basic rights that are neither derived from nor conferred by the state but are “gifts from the Almighty God.”
Dr. King’s proclamations of humanity in a time of injustice were revolutionary acts. Though African Americans were promised life and liberty through the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln in 1863, the pursuit of happiness in 1963 was primarily limited to those of European descent; African Americans continued to face discrimination in jobs, segregation in schools, judicial injustices and, at every level, denial of voting rights. These conditions were the status quo, and so Dr. King’s message of racial equality was viewed by many as radical and threatening, as evidenced in the violence directed at his nonviolent demonstrations.
Over the past 50 years, Dr. King’s dream has evolved as others shared in it. The narrative of the speech shifted from “I Have A Dream” to “We Have A Dream,” as individuals and organizations worked to bring fruition to his vision. The goals of the 1963 March on Washington have evolved to include demands for health care for all and for equal rights for gays and lesbians. Though Dr. King’s speech centered on the African American population, it is now echoed by Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, the poor, the disabled and all groups that are systematically excluded from the American Dream. The dream has evolved from equality to equity, from representation to valuing diversity, from tolerance to appreciation and from the right to vote to governing as the head of state.
The 50th observance of any event is a time of major reflection. The nation has witnessed significant progress in racial justice since the 1960s. African Americans are attending prestigious private and public universities and are employed in prestigious jobs. Yet the academic and economic segregation of America’s schools continues, and growing inequities in wealth and well-being have sharpened and been ignored. Even the people’s right to vote is being challenged 50 years later. Clearly, we cannot be complacent and leave it to time alone to heal all. Like Dr. King, we must remain “maladjusted” to these inequities and committed to their eradication. We as educators, parents, politicians, students, workers and citizens must continue our role of activists and act now to ensure that Dr. King’s dream is attainable for all citizens.
America is still falling short of the radical aims of the civil rights movement of the 1960s; there is still much work to do to fully realize Dr. King’s dream. Yes, we must recognize and prize what has been accomplished, but we must also look forward to determine what still needs to be done. We need to determine what our individual contributions are even as we act collectively. In doing so, we renew our dedication to fulfilling both Dr. King’s dream and the American dream. We welcome your participation in the 27th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium as we discuss:
50 Years Later: (R)Evolution of The Dream
The 2013 MLK Symposium
Martin Luther King, Jr., (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968) was born Michael Luther King, Jr., but later had his name changed to Martin. His grandfather began the family’s long tenure as pastors of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, serving from 1914 to 1931; his father has served from then until the present, and from 1960 until his death Martin Luther acted as co-pastor. Martin Luther attended segregated public schools in Georgia, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen; he received the B. A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, a distinguished Negro institution of Atlanta from which both his father and grandfather had graduated. After three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class, he was awarded the B.D. in 1951. With a fellowship won at Crozer, he enrolled in graduate studies at Boston University, completing his residence for the doctorate in 1953 and receiving the degree in 1955. In Boston he met and married Coretta Scott, a young woman of uncommon intellectual and artistic attainments. Two sons and two daughters were born into the family.
In 1954, Martin Luther King accepted the pastorale of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Always a strong worker for civil rights for members of his race, King was, by this time, a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading organization of its kind in the nation. He was ready, then, early in December, 1955, to accept the leadership of the first great Negro nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the bus boycott described by Gunnar Jahn in his presentation speech in honor of the laureate. The boycott lasted 382 days. On December 21, 1956, after the Supreme Court of the United States had declared unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on buses, Negroes and whites rode the buses as equals. During these days of boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, he was subjected to personal abuse, but at the same time he emerged as a Negro leader of the first rank.
In 1957 he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning civil rights movement. The ideals for this organization he took from Christianity; its operational techniques from Gandhi. In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action; and meanwhile he wrote five books as well as numerous articles. In these years, he led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, that caught the attention of the entire world, providing what he called a coalition of conscience. and inspiring his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, a manifesto of the Negro revolution; he planned the drives in Alabama for the registration of Negroes as voters; he directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his address, “l Have a Dream”, he conferred with President John F. Kennedy and campaigned for President Lyndon B. Johnson; he was arrested upwards of twenty times and assaulted at least four times; he was awarded five honorary degrees; was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; and became not only the symbolic leader of American blacks but also a world figure.
At the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, he was assassinated.