King's most well-known speech mixed a radical critique of institutional racism and white supremacy with a defiant optimism for the future that resonates as much today -- in the aftermath of Charlottesville
and other racially motivated conflicts -- as it did in his own time.
Although not an official holiday, all Americans should embrace this anniversary as a day of service on behalf of social justice, what King characterized as a person's highest public calling. I plan to devote my time and energies that day working and dialoguing with students, community leaders and activists committed to fulfilling the promise of an event whose full title -- "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" -- remains the most important and unfulfilled challenge of the civil rights era.
The focus on King's "dream" buried some of the most important aspects of the speech. At the March on Washington, King successfully linked a black-led civil rights movement to the sacred texts that form the beating heart of American democracy.
Afterward, no one could successfully accuse black protesters of being unAmerican or anti-patriotic, even though many would continue to try. In less than two years, President Lyndon B. Johnson would echo King's words in the aftermath of "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, comparing peaceful protesters brutalized by Alabama law enforcement with the heroes of the American Revolution.
In so doing, like America's founders, King introduced ideas about freedom bigger than one man, movement or nation, ones that have resonated around the world from the Arab Spring to movements for democracy in China, Africa, Latin America and Europe.
Speaking in 1963 against the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument on the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, King characterized
the words embedded in America's Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as a "promissory note" that, for blacks, remained unfulfilled behind a veil of racial injustice, legal apartheid and endemic poverty.
Although we remain far more comfortable with the image of King as a racial healer, in Washington that sunny afternoon, he spoke with bracing candor that is well worth remembering. Blacks had received "a bad check," King observed, explaining the gathering of a quarter million in the nation's capital as an effort to claim, "the riches of freedom and the security of justice."
King extolled the virtues of grassroots organizing, praising the "marvelous new militancy" erupting in all quarters of the nation even as he warned against the temptation to use physical violence. He challenged the activists of his era and our own to "rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."
Yet King remained sober about the breadth and depth of institutional racism. He refused to sugarcoat or gloss over the massive obstacles that remained in the quest for a "beloved community" free of injustice.
Black Americans and their allies had a moral, as well as political, obligation to resist police brutality, oppose racial segregation, and risk being confined to "narrow jail cells" in order to bear public witness to brutality and oppression that diminished the nation's democratic promise and potential, King argued.
Then came the dream.
A dream that King described as "deeply rooted in the American dream" that would allow the nation to match its soaring democratic rhetoric with new political realities capable of extending citizenship to all Americans. He specifically cited the states of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama -- the sites of bloody battles during the Civil War and during the civil rights era -- as exemplars of the need to build racial reconciliation on the bedrock foundation of historical truth.
King's vision of a multicultural America demanded truth and reconciliation, one that acknowledged slavery's contemporary reverberations, criticized elected officials for inflaming already heated racial passions, and identified children of all colors and backgrounds as the hope for a future free of hate.
We remain painfully distant from the kind of racial healing King proposed that day, despite important civil rights victories highlighted by Barack Obama's presidential election. The hard work of reconciliation comes through a sober examination of discomfiting historical truths about slavery, Jim Crow, and their contemporary manifestations in devaluing black lives in America.
National recognition of racial inequality's continuing legacy requires the transformation of institutions forged against the backdrop of racial injustice.
The "mountain of despair" that King spoke of 54 years ago remains an ever-present aspect of American society, as events in Charlottesville and elsewhere remind us of. Combatting racial despair in our own time requires the courage to admit to moral and political failures of will and imagination and to create a political framework that will heal past and continuing ruptures.
Yet King's understanding of the tragic dimensions of the nation's racial history never undermined his faith in one day achieving racial justice. King's "I Have a Dream" speech is as relevant today as it was over a half century ago precisely because its unsentimental vision of American society demands a mature, reflective and bold approach to social justice organizing.
Fifty-four years later, King's legacy offers concrete ways of dealing with a contemporary racial landscape that has produced a sense of vertigo in large swaths of the American public. King's words remain a singular anchor for all those who believe in freedom; by speaking truth to power in a political climate more racially toxic than our own, King did more than dream about racial justice.
He challenged all of us to embrace a vision of a liberated future capable of touching individual hearts and minds as it traversed through the blood and veins of the body politic, on the way to creating a nation as good as the best of its citizens.