“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. August 28, 1963
This one sentence from the speech Dr. King gave at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom has been used to claim Dr. King was calling for a colorblind society. My belief, based on a reading of the entire speech, leads me to another conclusion about the use of colorblindness.
This takes some unpacking because of the way we’ve been taught to interpret the speech. First of all, the part of the speech about his dream was not even included in the written speech he prepared for that day. He ad-libbed that part because Mahalia Jackson shouted for him to “Tell them about the dream Martin! Tell them about the dream!” His speech that day was supposed to be short, only five minutes long, the limit all speakers were given that day, but he spoke for over 16 minutes.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. PC: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
As he struggled to come up with a theme, two metaphors were most prevalent in his mind. The one he went with in the written speech was the image of America having written a “bad check” to its black citizens. He decided he did not have time to use the dream metaphor in a five-minute speech. He made the decision to use American history to teach us a lesson about broken promises instead.
“In a sense we’ve come 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 were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds…”
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