Part way through his speech to a quarter-million people on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. heard the voice of his friend, the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was sitting behind him.
She called out to him: “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
That was 50 years ago; the anniversary is Wednesday. It is worth recalling all of the streams that flowed into the river of that moment and how that river has flowed down to this day. It is a river that receives the waters of all the 50 states, from Vermont to Mississippi, from Maine to Hawaii. It is the river of Martin’s dream.
It is noteworthy that Mahalia Jackson is the one who spurred King on to his great rhetorical flight. She embodied a tradition of black spiritual power, fused with the tradition of the American Negro spiritual. She was a great artist whose voice rang with the complex history of black experience — of oppression, hope and strength.
King responded to Jackson, launching into an improvised evocation of the yearning felt by millions of people all across the country for true equality. It turns out the “I Have a Dream” section of his speech amounted to an extended riff on themes he had described before. King’s magnificent rhetoric was in the tradition of the black church, responding to the moment, not unlike the musical tradition that was another one of the great rivers of American culture — gospel, blues, jazz.
The march was a landmark of history. The United States in 1963 was not accustomed to huge mass protests, but the civil rights movement had reached a critical moment. The nation had become aware of the violence and brutality of the segregationist South, and it was time, according to King and others, to bring the movement to the nation’s capital.
Thus, the march was a great awakening and a coming together. About 50,000 of the 250,000 who gathered were white, showing that the civil rights movement was not a black movement only. It was an American movement.
Last week the essayist and novelist Albert Murray died at age 97. Murray was noted for his view that black culture and white culture were not separate things in America. They were integral to American culture, bound up together, defining us as a distinct people.
King’s rhetoric was similarly inclusive. “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people,” he said, “for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
Fifty years have passed since that moment, and much has changed. The hard hearts of those who cling to the notion that the white race ought to occupy a superior place remain hard, though these days it is not easy for bigotry to speak its name openly. We have a black president; we also have the currents of racism that his presidency has set in motion. The language of racism these days is usually coded, allowing people to deny it. But it’s there. It’s the old fight.
Different regions confront that fight in different ways. Vermont, far from the old Confederacy and without a numerous black population, remains committed to equality but still subject to the pernicious appeal of bigotry. In the past it has all seemed innocent — Kake Walk at the University of Vermont, not abolished until 1969, when Vermonters began to be aware of the way the nation’s racist traditions tended to manifest themselves behind a guise of innocence.
These days police in Vermont have had to face up to the reality of racial profiling. It is telling that there has been little resistance to the notion that racial injustice must not be tolerated.
The moment in 1963, when a quarter-million people came together in a mass march and when the vision of equality found a voice in King’s great speech, ought to be remembered 50 years later as a summons. It is a summons to let freedom ring.
But it is not an abstract kind of freedom that allows corporations to ride roughshod over people. “From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire ... [to] every hill and molehill of Mississippi,” King wanted freedom to ring for the people of every race, especially the poor and the oppressed. They had gathered to hear him speak on the Mall in Washington, and he spoke to all of them.