Reclaiming MLK Jr.’s ‘Dream’ 60 Years Later

How we can better engage with the famous March on Washington speech.

From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. cast such a transformative vision for freedom and equality in his “I Have a Dream” speech that, “with a single phrase, [he] joined the likes of Lincoln and Jefferson as men who’ve shaped modern America,” wrote Time magazine. Sixty years ago this August 28, King gave his speech during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In that moment, King ascended from a movement leader to a cultural icon.

Though they are well known, cultural icons are often flat and static, lacking the luxury of nuance or adaptability. An iconized version of a person can be easily co-opted and used against the very causes and values of the person in whose image the icon is fashioned.

Within his own lifetime, King experienced the difficulties of having a single moment define his entire legacy, and he worried about misuses of his “Dream” speech. King knew listeners tended to focus on his final six minutes of soaring refrains at the expense of the first 11 minutes of careful socioeconomic and cultural analysis. For many, the hopeful conclusion of the “Dream” speech was twisted into a facile optimism that avoided the hard questions necessary for real progress.

In May 1967, King publicly addressed these concerns. Much of the optimism he’d embodied just three years before had been tempered by a stark realism that racism, economic exploitation, and militarism were much more entrenched in the American way of life than he’d realized. In an interview with journalist Sander Vanocur, King attempted to reclaim his own legacy.

“I must confess that that dream that I had that day has in many points turned into a nightmare,” …

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