The event was scheduled for August 28, 1963: a mile-long walk from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, built in honor of the president who had signed the Emancipation Proclamation a century earlier. The march called for the desegregation of public housing and public schools, redress for constitutional rights violations and a broad federal employee training program.
His demands were fair and he produced a higher turnout than expected. An estimated 250,000 people arrived at what would become the biggest event in American history. It has been honored by many celebrities, including Bob Dylan and soul singer, Mahalia Jackson, and the significance of the event has not escaped meticulous preparation by Martin Luther King Jr.
It is the improvised part of the speech that history remembers. Still, the inclusion of the passage “I have a dream” was a spontaneous addition, which may or may not have been prompted by Mahalia Jackson. She, history reminds us, had heard him use this refrain during a demonstration in Detroit a few months earlier. Jackson and King had a good relationship, he often turned to her when he needed a musical boost. Now standing next to him, when he started to struggle with his prepared text, she shouted, “Tell them about the Martin dream.”
And so King kicked off and took the crowd listening to him to church, as they say. He began slowly, powerful pauses combining with clear, overdone diction. Indeed, precise enunciation is the hallmark of this speech, and in his first minute, King only utters 77 words.
Among the most ubiquitous and perhaps misunderstood of these were:
âIn a sense, we came to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they signed a promissory note that every American was to inherit. The post was a promise that all men, yes black and white would be guaranteed the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … it is now evident that America has fallen short on this promissory note, as far as citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America gave the black people a bad check, a check that came back marked with insufficient funds. “
For good reason, restorative justice was an important theme in King’s vision. The history of African Americans had been marked by slavery. The loss of life, dignity, land and family had followed slaves for centuries, every life stolen by their oppressors. Even the new American laws, meant to provide a semblance of parity for African Americans, were disappointing because of their failure to create an America that was fair for African Americans.
King’s request for reparations was very clear: âIn a sense, we came to our nation’s capital to cash a check. It was a metaphor that started in Alabama jail cells and ended in a New York bank vault. You see, many black youths were arrested during the Birmingham marches and the movement quickly needed to generate large sums of money which led to the young men being released.
King pointed out that US banks hold trillions of dollars, amounts far exceeding the amount of bond demanded by the courts. He was locked in American coffers and was to be released to compensate the millions of African Americans who had tried to live their lives under the curse of slavery and whose economic opportunities had been drastically reduced due to the cruel past of the world. ‘story.
King was adamant. Reparations, along with other concrete expressions of justice, had to take place now. And remedying inherited inequalities would ultimately only go through reparations. Such an emergency was not at all surprising because for King the reparations would mean America, plagued by exploitation, taking its own history seriously. It would be a concrete recognition of the effects that harmful policies have had on black bodies. Reparations were a way to make the whole country whole and provide African Americans with the opportunity to become bodies.
To demand that America repair its damage was a bold move. This certainly presented a powerful challenge to the structures that linked privilege to whiteness. He forcibly challenged the legacy of European colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade and the legacy of British colonial power. King’s âI have a dreamâ speech put all of these issues and more firmly on America’s agenda.
The American elite went out of their way to cover up this potentially dangerous part of the âI have a dreamâ discourse, portraying King as a gradualist and diplomat, not as a revolutionary engaged in reparations. And many faith communities, including churches, have remained silent on this most pressing issue.
Yet the restorative justice portion of King’s speech reminds us forcefully of the untold damage colonial powers inflicted on the Caribbean and parts of Africa, and recognizes that reparation has the capacity to bring restoration and redemption for the brutalized.
Churches and religious organizations, if they are truly engaged in issues of racial justice, must pick up on this theme by theologizing its meaning and making sure it is high on our agendas.
Wale Hudson-Roberts is Justice Enabler at the Baptist Union of Great Britain and pastor of John Bunyan Baptist Church in Cowley, Oxford.