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Welcome to After the Dream, which examines the social, economic, and political implications of events in America’s South following the civil rights movement of the mid 1960s, and the ongoing struggle for black equality.
In Part 7, Professor Timothy Minchin and Professor Emeritus John Salmond will discuss Martin Luther King and his dream. We’ll start with Professor Salmond.
- John Salmond:
Martin Luther King became and was for a brief period of time, obviously, the leader of the National Civil Rights Movement. His involvement in a bus boycott in Montgomery in Alabama in the 1950's catapulted him into the position of national black leader. He became synonymous with non-violent action to bring social change and his speech on the 28th of August, 1963 was very much in that pattern.He, of course, was not the only speaker. There were nine others, but he’s the one who’s remembered. And it was partly because of the fact that there were nine others that his speech turned out to be so great. Because, essentially, he had to throw away much of his prepared speech because things went on far too long, and delivered his dream speech which was composed of bits and pieces of stuff that he’d been saying in other places for quite some time, more it’s extemporaneously and it was extraordinary powerful performance. I will never forget it. It was, for me, the single most compelling piece of public oratory that I’ve ever heard and there’s no doubt that King’s dream became synonymous with the civil rights movement.Everyone knows what King’s dream was to the extent that King is now a kind of national figure. King has become a uniting figure where as at the time he was a very divisive figure but he’s now uniting figure.People take from the dream speech just about whatever they want to. Some of the tea party rallies, this year—some of this extremely right wing rallies in which there is an element of anti-Obama racism—nevertheless became celebrations of King’s dream. Sarah Palin drapes herself in King’s dream because the part of the dream that people remember now and which everyone can use—conservatives, as well as liberals—is the notion about what matters is not the colour of the skin but the conscience of your character. King’s dream is essentially a non-racial one and so you can use King’s dream now and it is being used and has been used for 20, 30 years to justify standing against affirmative action, to justify giving any racial preference at all because that’s not what the dream talked about. The dream talked about just individual character.So King has now become a unifying figure. You take from him what you want. No one really dwells on the fact that when he was assassinated in 1968, he was a very divisive figure indeed. And a man who had grown steadily more radical, who really actually, by 1968, could not have believed all that much about his dream. A man who became deeply disillusioned with his country and its involvement in Vietnam, deeply disillusioned about the social progress that he had expected so confidently to see five years before, and who had moved more and more into what might be called political position of the democratic socialist questioning the very foundations of American liberal democracy.That was the reality of the time of his death. It is not the reality now. King is all things to all persons as much as you can take what you want from, say, the Gospels. You can take what you want from King’s dream speech and people do and they use it in very, very different ways.
- Timothy Minchin
Yeah, I think very much so. I mean, I think it’s interesting, when he was assassinated as you say, he was actually calling for a radical redistribution of income. This wasn’t just something that he said at the end of his life. It is something he’d been saying for several years previously and there's always been quite a strong emphasis on economic rights in his thinking on supporting the rights of unionisation for black workers as a way of lifting them out of poverty. And these aspects of his philosophy and thinking are almost completely absent from public day life and discourse about King. So, it’s interesting the way that certain aspects of his philosophy are being remembered and others have been largely forgotten.
- John Salmond
Even with President Obama, who proclaims King to be his hero, it’s the consensus King that President Obama is most engaged with. Because he really is in many ways a post civil rights African-American.He doesn’t share, for a start, the legacy of African slavery, the traditional African-American narrative. That isn’t Obama’s narrative at all, obviously. In fact, the only connection that Obama has with slavery, unlike most African-Americans, is through his white great grandparents who owned slaves. And so his King is very much the consensus King of everyone pulling together and building a better world.
The book Professor Minchin and Professor Salmond co-authored is called ‘After the Dream: Black and White Southerners since 1965’. It is published by the University of Kentucky Press and is available from all good book stores.
Listen in next week , when they will discuss the current state of civil rights in the Obama presidency. If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org