King, in context

The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaks in Eutaw, Ala., in this June 1965 photo. (The Associated Press — … Continued

The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaks in Eutaw, Ala., in this June 1965 photo. (The Associated Press — AP)

“We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of.” These words were spoken at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but they are probably unfamiliar to you. This quote is not part of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s so-called “I Have a Dream” speech. It is from the speech of then-chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and current Georgia congressman, Rev. John Lewis. We have domesticated the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom by focusing on King and the more inspirational elements of his speech.

August 28, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This anniversary has received widespread media attention, and the National Action Network organized the August 24th National Action to Realize the Dream March, which commemorated the 1963 March. Nevertheless, as discussed in William P. Jones’ The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, many of the more radical elements of the March on Washington have been erased from the popular narrative regarding the March.

For example, the March was a landmark event in the Civil Rights Movement, but “Jobs and Freedom” is often left out of the title. Referring to the March only as “The March on Washington” removes its original emphasis on addressing the political, economic, and social conditions that were facing African Americans and others deprived of their civil rights as U.S. citizens.

Also, the significance of the date of the March is typically not mentioned. The March was set to coincide with the eighth anniversary of the murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till. Till was kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi on August 28, 1955. His death, the acquittal of the accused (and later confessed) murderers, and the subsequent publicity, particularly the publication of photos of Till’s open casket, helped to galvanize anti-lynching efforts.

Furthermore, King’s address at the March, popularly known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, has become the focal point of our collective memory of the March. The ubiquitous black-and-white video clips of King at the Lincoln Memorial focus on his rhetorical repetition of “I have a dream,” “let freedom ring,” and his dramatic call for a diverse and inclusive America in which we hold hands and sing together “free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.” By highlighting King’s more positive points or ringing bells in his honor, I fear that we reduce his powerful comments to a “Moments in Black History” sound bite.

Typically, we do not mention how King’s speech touches on the historical hypocrisy of the U.S. in not fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Emancipation Proclamation. King states, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.” More often than not, such elements of the speech are neglected over in favor of King’s celebrated remarks regarding his hope for the future.

By focusing on King and his speech, we do not acknowledge the coalition of groups and the diversity of people who helped to organize and participate in the March. We do not recognize the substantial contributions of those who were excluded, including women activists such as Dorothy Height who were not permitted to serve as speakers during the official program, as well as those who did not support the March such as Stokely Carmichael.

Certainly, King’s speech provides admirable ideals. His words have become part of national lexicon and our national heritage. They call for a more inclusive and cohesive nation to which we still aspire. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, let us reflect not just on the current state of King’s Dream but on the current state of jobs and freedom.

As a biblical studies professor, I emphasize the importance of reading biblical texts in their historical and literary context to avoid turning them into bumper sticker slogans. Whether reading biblical texts or other classic texts of history or literature, we cannot focus merely on texts that provide comfort and solace if we are to be responsible stewards of their legacy.

Nyasha Junior is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @NyashaJunior.

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  • rc115shepherd

    Dr. King, in his life became (despite his attempt to avoid), an extremely useful symbol and instrument of white, Western, Euro-American propaganda. And the propaganda view and use of King is what has survived in the public mind in the Euro-American remembrance of M.L. King. Today we almost completely forget that a mass psychology was carefully constructed and manipulated to deeply implant into the minds of the post-WWII and baby-boom generations, an almost wholly false view and memory of social relations between people of color; and Euro-Americans; from the time of King, and it continues until today.

    The foremost propaganda lie on King’s legacy was/is; the idea that, that “jobs and justice”, was not to be (and is still not) a legitimate objective of a “Civil Rights” agenda. In the establishment of an acceptable memory of him; propagandists have wholly erased King’s attempt to assert and establish the need for an economic agenda, consonant with a civil/political/social agenda. And today, you can see the success of that propaganda effort in the fact that both of America’s current “poster children” for the success of the crusade for civil rights; Senatorial Candidate Corey Booker and U.S. President Obama, epitomize the successful divorce of any correlation between civil and economic rights.

    Booker and Obama are both, proudly and unashamedly, completely co-opted fawning parasites of Wall Street. Yet, they both would politically “fight to the death”, for a defense of “affirmative action” admissions, to Ivy League universities (and for affirmative action programs to hire minorities to work on Wall Street). This curious anomaly is precisely due to the success of the propaganda manipulation of the memory of Dr. King, and of “what” his legacy as a social activist was and iis understood to have been.

  • doubtfull

    How about MLK in absentia? I am sooo tired of this guy. Talk is cheap and while he sounded good his brothers seem to have chosen to ignore his exhultations- like a carnival barker he sounded enticeing but in the end it was the SOS.

  • PB620

    As a pastor I understand and appreciate the analogy in your final paragraph. Someone somewhere along the way in my seminary education told me: “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” Certainly the text of speeches that carry “iconic” status can be subject to the same manipulation.
    The problem with researching the context is that it takes time and a certain amount of humility, and it is just so much easier to adopt proof-text slogans that best fit one’s own preconceived notions. I find this is all too common among Christians, and sometimes I think I might as well defy gravity as try to lift people’s assumptions high enough for them to view in light of new information.
    But, ever-hopeful (and mindful of the role of the Holy Spirit!), this past Sunday in my mostly white congregation I reminded them that jobs and economic justice were the focus of the 1963 march. It was easy to show that we haven’t made much progress on that front in fifty years. But the context I chose to give for this was not the Dream speech (which I referenced) but rather King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (which I quoted), the part where he referred to Christians who were “silent and secure behind stained glass windows.” These days I am challenging all of us to look at justice issues. Learning more of the story, the context, is helpful.
    My concern is that soon there will be a bigger challenge as we try to understand institutional, systemic racism. Fifty years ago, things like “Whites Only” signs made racism obvious. But today the context is changed. Today the obvious signs have disappeared or morphed into more complex forms (the Trayvon Martin killing is not the same as what happened to Emmet Till, though both reek of injustice). Today “white privilege” continues as an invisible, insidious barrier, more difficult to see precisely because those whose “text” is “I have a dream” now suggest it should be regarded a dream-come-true because we have a black president.

  • PB620

    For some reason the last sentence of my comment got cut off: So keep preaching/teaching. At least some of us are listening.