Two dreams clashed 50 years ago.
“I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny,” pugnacious George Wallace snarled on Jan. 14, 1963, in his inaugural address as Alabama’s governor. “And I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” Wallace’s dream split white from black, keeping Negroes in secondary corners.
Martin Luther King’s dream embraced a nobler, conciliatory tone. He aimed to bridge the racial divide. Preaching on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a half century ago on August 28, King’s vision clashed with Wallace’s bigotry. King pictured a “day when black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
This sermon ripped from historical context floats as a cluster of pleasing words. Yes, King’s dream sounds motivational. Its lyrical cadence stokes hearts and ignites burning memories of the ’60s. But dreams divorced from context turn into flighty, rhetorical pie-in-the-sky exercises.
The 1963 March on Washington that gathered before the Lincoln Memorial became shrouded in nostalgia. We see film clips of well-mannered crowds streaming from Union Station or arriving on rickety church buses. We conjure pictures of a huge picnic alongside reflective pools. Listeners heard folk singers and responded to energetic speeches. Americans peacefully enveloped Washington’s Mall in late August 1963.
King’s vision for America regains its edgy thrust when we remember the occasion of his “I Have a Dream” sermon. The official title of the event was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Its sponsors demanded from Congress a massive federal program to train the unemployed and make jobs available for poor Negroes and whites.
Marchers appealed to Uncle Sam to restore dignity to menial labor. How? Raise the minimum wage.
The Rev. Michael E. Livingston acknowledges lack of jobs and living wages in 1963. “The national unemployment rate on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963, was 5 percent; for blacks it was 10 percent. Today, the national rate is 7.7 percent, while for African-Americans it is nearly 16 percent and almost 10 for Hispanics.”
“There is no pending legislation,” observes Livingston, “to create jobs for the millions of our unemployed citizens of every race and ethnicity. The (King’s) dream suffers today as it did then. In 1963, the federal minimum wage was raised to $1.25 under the terms of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Today, it is $7.25, and that represents a 30 percent loss in value over the last 40 years. The dream suffers today, as it did then” (The Presbyterian Outlook, “Dreaming Jobs and Freedom,” Aug. 5, 2013, p. 17).
King’s dream fades, reports Livingston, because Congress log jams approval of the 2013 Fair Minimum Wage Act. Conservatives predict a fiscal collapse if small-business owners have to pay higher minimum wages. Business tycoons continue to accumulate piles of cash as the stock market soars. Middle-class Americans rush to buy cars and trucks because their incomes rise and unemployment skids. Congressional leaders reside in D.C.’s affluent suburbs, which record one of the highest per family incomes in the nation.
Yet, the minimum wage stagnates as inflation erodes its purchasing value. If raised, 30 million Americans would benefit from wages increased, with nearly half of this workforce filled by African-Americans.
When King’s dream is ripped from its jobs context, it loses its bite. This vision has deep biblical roots. “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen,” declares the Lord, “to loose the bonds of injustice … to share your bread with the hungry? Then your light will break forth like the dawn” (Isaiah 58:6-8).
As with many great leaders like Lincoln and Churchill, King’s soul was conflicted. He wrestled with dark depression. Isolated from Washington’s power brokers, he felt Congress majored on promises but minored on helping poor folks get jobs.
King lived by a promise never fully realized. America prides itself on being a land of equal opportunity in the job market.
He recognized being out of sync with a country that offered few jobs for the poor. “But there are some things in our social system to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I suggest that you, too, ought to be maladjusted,” King announced. “I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic inequalities of an economic system which take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. ... I call upon you to be maladjusted.”
Become “maladjusted” in King’s good sense. Work at making real his dream.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.