Updated: Dec 16, 2021
Of the many speeches by Martin Luther King during his brief but profound tenure as a major leader in the movement for equal rights and the dignity of Black people in America, only one speech is used over and over by White America. Many Black Americans have also accepted this speech as the best representation of the hope of Black America, and both White and Black America have coined it the "I Have a Dream” speech. What is particularly important in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and not others in his repertoire is his proclamation of hope that one day all people would not be judged by skin color but on "the content of their character." This phrase has resonated for over two generations of Americans as our profound wish for the nation and is the impetus for this essay. In this essay, it is important to point out that I am not implying any notion of the speech as unimportant, nor am I implying that the hope as espoused by Dr. King is not a legitimate and realizable goal. What I am implying is that the insidiousness of white supremacy has always tried and in many cases succeeded in mocking the positive messages, images, and ideology of any Black leader for whom they feel the most threatened; case in point, the vilification and mockery of Colin Kaepernick today. It is no secret that the real history of the adult life of Dr. King relative to his work for equal rights was wrought with animus and cruelty by white supremacists and their desire to hold on to the system of Racism by any means. Indeed, when faced with the prospect of a seeming “Messiah,” the FBI designed a concerted effort to destroy him both personally and professionally. Of course, conspiracies being what they are, and how they are considered by the public, the likelihood of a conspiracy being responsible for his eventual death appears more real than not.
I began to think about the “dream.” I began to think critically about the idea of a nation where the content of one’s character would be more important than the color of one’s skin in America. There were critical questions which came to mind during my process, questions that concern what mechanisms of white supremacy would be used to diminish, mock or disintegrate the legacy of Dr. King, while at the same time, holding him up as a sort of martyr, a fallen messiah, through the tenants of the “dream.” I came up with two questions with regard to this most popular and profound phrase in this speech by Dr. King, and how this phrase could have been used not only to mock him but used against Black people in America for two generations since it was first spoken as a viable future for the nation.
1. Why is this particular speech the one most often paraded out by White people as the definitive representation of the hope of Black people?
White supremacist America makes no secret of its penchant for mockery. What more eloquent representation of the hope of “America” as espoused by a Black man could be used to mock the very idea of that hope? Since the Civil Rights Act was signed and amended, supremacist forces made a mockery of Black America during its so-called Colorblind era when Whiteness disappeared in favor of terms such as “normal,” “neutral” and “natural,” which became “dog whistles” for “white.” These and other terms such as “minority,” and “mainstream” are still go-to words for segregating people without physically denying access, which is now against the law. Notwithstanding its use to describe a “race” of people in the world, the color Black has historically negative connotations which are too deeply ingrained in the world psyche to eliminate, so there was no way that “Black” anything was going to change, least of all its connotation for Black people. Therefore, color as a tool for white supremacy would remain intact. Colorblindness could be used as a mockery for the first part of the phrase for the hope and “dream,” which brings me to the second question:
2. Did white supremacist powers mock the second part of Dr. King’s phrase using the so-called wars on crime and drugs after the Civil Rights Act was signed?
I maintain that white supremacist powers used the phrase, “content of their character,” to mock Dr. King’s vision by reinforcing already negative attitudes of Black America through the use of ever existing structural institutions of Racism, at the same time that they were touting the end of its euphemized name, “Segregation.”It wasn’t even necessary to “change” the view of most of white America relative to the character of Black Americans. The historical propaganda and rhetoric after the Enslavement relegated Black Americans to labels as lazy and shiftless, hypersexualized and criminal. What was important to supremacists was to reinforce these notions over the decades through the use of their power over the structural institutions in place, and their ability to shape the narrative of Black people through these institutions. What was formerly evident through institutionalized racism prior to the Civil Rights Act, was turned into personalized, individual behavior, where the inability to succeed was the result individual failure and not systemic racism, since it had “ended” and the nation was living in a “post racial” era. The so-called wars on crime and drugs successfully reinforced to a much larger degree and for a large portion of both Black and White people in America, the character of the entire “race” as “criminal.” These “wars” did almost irreparable damage to the “character” of Black people in America and still do today. This character of “criminality” for Black Americans is the most difficult to dispel because of the mechanisms of institutional racism in place to sustain the conditioning of minds.
As a result of the fallacy and an outright effort to further malign the “character” of Black Americans while claiming a blindness for color, I think it is quite possible to believe White supremacist elements in America succeeded during this post racial era in bringing to focus “their” definition of Dr. King’s hope for the nation. By illuminating their view of the color and content of Black character, they also succeeded in mockery of the entire speech and Dr. King. What are your thoughts?