This was long before I was born, inhabiting a world of both literal and figurative black and white, grainy film footage and crackly audio being my only connection to Martin Luther King’s iconic moment. From that perspective it’s history; inspiring history, yes, but history nonetheless.
But it’s easy to close the speech’s borders, to assume it’s only about the Civil Rights movement and racism, but it’s not that easily contained. It’s about economics and history and poverty and non-violence, themes with destinies that, like our own, are bound together with one another. How we treat refugees and the poor influences how we treat our neighbours; the decision to go to war made in plush London adn Washington offices impacts six-year-olds in Syria; one trolling joke about rape pollutes starts to pollute the whole of Twitter. King saw this, recognised how our destinies are intertwined and how our attitudes create policy and attitudes.
King says this better than you or I could though, his words carrying the weight of history and literature and scripture. Echoes of the Emancipation Proclamation and Richard III resound alongside heart cries of King David and the Prophet Isaiah. And yet that’s not all – about halfway through, King deviates from his original notes and improvises, and that’s the point everyone listening goes to church as Reverend King kicks into gear. The speech wasn’t originally meant to be about a dream; its most famous moment is the beginning of the improvisation and, possibly, the moment the orator becomes the prophet.
The Dream still isn’t a reality, not in the US, nor in the UK. The Trayvon Martin case points to that, as do the ‘Go Home’ vans driving around Britain. The narrative here is informed by racial tension, but is grounded in fear, fear of the outsider, fear of the unknown, and fear so often manifests as brutality. That’s why King’s call for nonviolence is so powerful – do you really win by using force, or do you just postpone the fight until the other guy comes back with a bigger stick? Besides, isn’t it better to live in a community defined by cooperation, not conquest.
“I Have a Dream” isn’t history, it’s a reminder. A reminder that the world isn’t equal, that racial tension is still real, that people still automatically equate ‘Muslim’ with ‘Terrorist’, that women are still forced to survive domestic and online abuse, that in some places you can still get arrested for being gay. Fifty years on, Dr. King’s words still matter.