The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 2 (Summer 2013)

Martin Luther King and the American Dream: A Conversation with Jonathan Rieder

Joseph E. Davis

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.2 (Summer 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2013

(Volume 15 | Issue 2)

Martin Luther King often refers to the American Dream. His commencement address at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, for instance, in 1961, was on the American Dream. How did King understand the Dream?

First, you have to be very careful when you try to fathom the meaning of King’s words. There’s been a long, scholarly tendency to look at his rhetoric as if it reflects a formal belief system. And sometimes it does. But a phrase like “The Dream” was also a rhetorical means that he used for particular ends depending on the occasion. You mentioned the Lincoln University speech—he was speaking to black students at an historic black college, and he was using “The Dream” to inspire them to demand fair treatment. That’s why he combined the appeal to the Dream with exhortations to black pride and quoted one of his favorite lines from a British Abolitionist poet that celebrates “fleecy locks” and “dark complexion.” When King invoked the American Dream before a gathering of the AFL-CIO [the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations] in 1961, he was bending over backwards to show labor that the black struggle for fair treatment was the same as labor’s struggle, which also had required protests and civil disobedience. It’s legitimation with a refined version of street edge, a kind of hoisting the audience with its own petard.

Despite these variations, the Dream always appealed to the value of equality. It wasn’t an appeal to a Horatio Alger-style competitive individualism: you can make yourself and rise above your parents’ station. It referred to equality in this sense: all people have a right to fulfill their talents and to be treated with dignity. When King dreams of a time when blacks and whites will treat each other with dignity, and thus as brothers, the Dream takes on a communal twist of mutual belonging. So the Dream repeats in a different idiom the same vision of a community without boundaries between people that King often evokes with the Apostle Paul quote he loved, “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave or free.”

You mentioned the AFL-CIO speech. There he does say the American Dream “is a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege, and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.” Is that material aspect always secondary?

That version of “I Have a Dream” is idiosyncratic. Keep in mind that his lefty-labor close friend and advisor, Stanley Levison, if I remember this correctly, wrote a good deal of that speech. It’s hard to imagine a stranger cultural clash than the one between all those rough and tumble union men and King’s sublime oratory. In any case, with King, everything always depends on the context and the audience. In the version of “I Have a Dream” he delivered in Detroit right before the March on Washington, he has a few runs that are grittier than dreaming à la Isaiah that every valley will be exalted and which befit urban Detroit: “I have a dream blacks will be able to buy homes in the neighborhood of their choice.” More often, the economic element presupposes the broader dream of eliminating all the barriers of sinful racism that create barriers between human beings.

It’s not just racism, is it? I was struck that when King talks about equality, he never seems to limit it to just the issue of racial equality. He’ll also mention creed and nationality. The civil rights movement is clearly about race, but when King talks about race, he seems to put it in this broader context of equality.

King was always moving back and forth between his profound universalism and his specific vocational task, which in the early period focused on the liberation of black people. But the foundation of it all was his Christian commitment to all God’s children. The American Dream was basically a nice civil religious parallel to it. This is why for all his love of the black church, King can’t be placed in the category of black theology. As he says, ideally there never should have been a black church and a white church; that is an affront to the sacred idea that there is no east or west, no freedman nor bondsmen, in Christ.

This broader aspect of King’s political mission only became more evident as he moved from being a civil rights leader to a warrior against war and global poverty. This often put him at odds with the more parochial strains in his own Southern Christian Leadership Conference who would say, “this is going to hurt black interests; don’t alienate Lyndon Johnson who’s been good for us by attacking his Vietnam policies.” And King replied more or less, “I am not a civil rights leader; I am a minister of God who cares about all of God’s children.” As he put it recurrently, “I’ve been anointed to free the captives.” He really meant all the captives.

In the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” there seems to be another kind of dream. Is there also an idea of an ancestral dream that in a sense precedes the American Dream?

There are many moments in his sermons when King makes clear that before there was an American dream, there was the slaves’ dream of freedom. This is a theme of my new book on Birmingham and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Gospel of Freedom. In the “Letter,” King does not rest his hope on some ordained democratic destiny of America but on the fortitude and “bottomless vitality” of the slaves. He says, “we were here before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here before Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence.”

The key point is that one can make too much of the civil religious dimension of “I Have a Dream,” as King performed it in the March on Washington. Once again, we need to remember what King was trying to do in Washington: persuade whites of the legitimacy of the civil rights movement, maintain the momentum that had been growing since Birmingham, and intensify pressure for the Civil Rights Bill. The target audience was not just whites in general, but Congress and President Kennedy. Just as, to some extent, when he was talking to Jews he would downplay his love of Jesus and quote the language of Exodus and Martin Buber, at the March on Washington, he sampled from sacred civil authorities and images.

Almost immediately, King hallowed the “magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” In other words, he was draping himself in all the trappings of American civil authority and the aura of Jefferson and “the shadow of Lincoln,” when only four months earlier in the “Letter,” he was saying “we were here before Jefferson.” The American Dream is a translation of the black demand for inclusion for an audience that is not necessarily going to be sympathetic to blackness as a legitimator of claims and demands.

Let’s turn to the “I Have a Dream” speech itself. I take it from your comments that the popular understanding of that speech and its meaning has been somewhat mistaken.

Most of the commemorations of “I Have a Dream” that surface every August celebrate the dreaminess of the dream, the moment of good feeling when King envisions blacks and whites holding hands together and marching off into an integrated future. There is nothing disturbing about it in the popular construction. But King meant to disturb, and this reading doesn’t do justice to the rougher aspects of his message and what King was actually up to on the Mall on that August afternoon.

What did he intend?

Begin at the beginning: Even as King falls into a civil-religious mode, evoking the memory of Lincoln with the phrase “five score years ago,” almost immediately he says: “One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.” The word “exile” was an oblique reference to something King sometimes expressed in black venues that echoed Malcolm X: America never treated her black exiles with the love and sympathy that she did her white immigrants. Also in Washington, he says right off, “we come together to dramatize a shameful condition.” This is a typical King maneuver; he offers a little insinuation of the prophet’s voice. He doesn’t want to undermine the positive appeal to the American people, and especially to Kennedy and Congress, and the possibilities of the Civil Rights Bill. But despite his practical need to persuade, he is not going to entirely abandon the prophetic element. He’s going to call America out—in a modulated fashion.

This tough-minded aspect of King surfaces throughout “I Have a Dream,” especially those moments when he incorporates passages and gambits from the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He goes back to the mantra, “now is the time.” He praises “marvelous militancy.” There is also the passage in which he imagines a white interlocutor asking him, “when will you be satisfied?” And he replies, “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters.” Once again, the prophet has returned, and it turns out he’s a black man who won’t let anyone turn him around.

For King, the dream always served as the ideal that highlighted the shameful fact of its absence in reality. It served as a secular form of prophecy. The dream was always opposed to its nonfulfillment. When he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin,” he was saying, they don’t live in such a nation right now. This tacit slap at America became especially pointed toward the end of “I Have a Dream,” when King imagined the day “all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: ‘my country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.’” Again, he was really saying, “blacks can’t really sing patriotic songs right now. That land of liberty doesn’t exist.”

Even when it’s not explicit, this element of rebuke always looms in the shadows of the dream. It’s evident at the start when King has the audacity to tinker with Jefferson. He says that the Declaration “was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’” The tinkering happens when King inserts, “black men as well as white men,” as if Jefferson actually said it that way. In truth, to rescue the Declaration of Independence, King had to rewrite it, and thereby made it his own.

I notice he does not use the phrase that he had used quite a bit previously about America’s “schizophrenic personality.” He uses that phrase going back to the late fifties to get at the idea that we’ve got a “creed,” an ideal of freedom and equality, and yet along with it an incredible history of discrimination.

King was always restating the same theme in different idioms; the particular phrasing doesn’t really matter. “Schizophrenic personality” is just another way of evoking the contradiction between professed values and empirical transgression. What’s happened in the four months since Birmingham is that more and more Americans have been dwelling on that tension. Even President Kennedy has been forced to abandon his diffident, evasive stance on race. At long last, the President spoke to the nation with a sense of moral urgency, and he even echoed King in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in many places.

That is the Kennedy speech on civil rights after “Letter from Birmingham Jail”?

Yes, soon after the black victory in Birmingham. Kennedy gave that remarkable speech on June 11th, the day that federal marshals forced Governor George Wallace to step aside and integrated the University of Alabama. By the time King gets on the Mall, there has been the breakthrough in Birmingham; black communities are rising up in protest across the nation. Sympathetic whites are showing up at big marches for freedom in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago; rabbis, ministers, and priests are joining in. King feels optimistic that the nation has reached a turning point in American political and racial consciousness. That’s why King doesn’t want to go too far with the chastising; he’s busy beckoning people to move forward.

Let’s talk about the way the Dream speech ends. King asks Mahalia Jackson to sing at the beginning, so there’s a musical set-up to his speech. Could you comment on the importance of that and the way he ends the speech?

It is always overlooked that King bookended “I Have a Dream” with the voices of the slaves. King began the speech itself by remembering the slaves and the fact that, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, they had never been emancipated. But even before that, King asked Mahalia Jackson to sing “Buked and Scorned.” That old spiritual was a touchstone for King, a channel of his almost mystical kinship with the slave forebears. He was signaling that for all the civil religious trappings, he intended to read American history in the light of black history. You need to place that choice of song in the context of the early sixties; long before black power, he’s bringing black cultural forms out into the public square.

It strikes me that this was fifty years ago, which also means it was fifty years closer to the slave experience.

1963 was before the Voting Rights Act; Jim Crow was very much intact. It wasn’t even close to being a post-civil rights era. But it’s not as if the recourse to spirituals in the movement was simply calling forth a living tradition. A long time ago, Lawrence Levine pointed out that the spirituals, with their greater this-worldly emphasis on deliverance, had given way in the nineteenth century to Gospel music, with its emphasis on redemption in the next world. There’s an interesting cultural selection process going on here: the civil rights movement went back and re-appropriated many of the spirituals, but that sometimes required tinkering to make the fighting for deliverance theme more explicitly political. So “I’m on My Way to Canaan’s Land” was secularized into “I’m on My Way to Freedom Land.” And “I Woke up This Morning with My Mind on Jesus” became “I Woke up This Morning with My Mind on Freedom. “We Shall Overcome” was originally “I Shall Overcome,” and the idea was that I shall overcome in the next world. It required some cultural labor to reframe the endeavor in a number of different ways: the time horizon for overcoming had to be shifted forward to this world; it had to be redefined as deliverance from racial and political oppression, not as redemption from sin; and it wasn’t God who did the overcoming but the collective defiant “we” who freed themselves through struggle.

And then King returns to music at the end.

Right. If Mahalia Jackson conjures up the slave voice to open, King gives the slaves the last word, just as he gave them the first word. He ends with “in the words of that old Negro spiritual, free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we’re free at last.” Here’s the tricky mash-up brilliance of King: the form seems like a civil religious one, but King has infused it with Afro-Baptist voice, content, and resonance. Thus did he subvert the purity of the civil religious genre. It’s another clue that the slave’s longing for freedom is the source of the “dreaming.”

There’s one more Afro-Baptist bit of trickery going on in “I Have a Dream,” and it involves the role of call and shout in the Dream portion of the speech. King had not intended to do “I Have a Dream” that day. Yet midway through the prepared speech, King threw down his prepared speech and just took off. It happened after King had turned to the civil rights workers—“some of you have come here from trials and tribulations.” It is almost as if the emotions released by turning back to his freedom fighters kept him from going back to the prepared speech.

Congressman John Lewis told me that he heard Mahalia Jackson up on the podium say “tell them about the dream, Martin,” and others have reported that too. She had been in Detroit with King when he performed “I Have a Dream.” In any case, we have this nice structural mélange: the first half is a carefully crafted speech; the second is essentially free-form preaching. King takes off, slipping from one riff to another, following where the spirit takes him, skipping from Isaiah’s exalted vision to the “Let freedom ring” refrain and countless other places. Think of the symbolism of it all: King, identified with integration, has carried out an audacious moment of black pride: in front of the nation, he has declared “I’m black and I’m proud” by exultantly “going to church” for the whole nation to witness.

There’s one additional telling thing that happens in the midst of this. Right before King declares, “this will be the day” that blacks can sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” he makes it clear that blacks will first have to transform America by working together and praying together and struggling together and going to jail together and standing up for freedom together.

When King used those same lines two days after he got out of the Birmingham jail back in April—it happens in an unknown, alternative, “black” version of Letter from Birmingham Jail that he preached in a mass meeting—he was even more explicit in linking freedom to human action. Black people would have to “bring that day” before they could sing “my country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” And that could only happen—and right at this point he used the conditional “if”—“if we work together, pray together, struggle together, go to jail together.” This is a nation-building moment, which I describe in Gospel of Freedom like this: the nation most whites thought they lived in wouldn’t exist until blacks created it.

All this reminds us that there was not a single deliverance tradition in black preaching; King was working the existential version of deliverance. C. L. Franklin, King’s favorite preacher and Aretha Franklin’s father, preached “Moses at the Red Sea”—“Just wait on him. Just wait on him. He’ll lead you across the Red Seas.” King said something different: God wants you to deliver yourself; you have to do it.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment in “I Have a Dream” comes after King has envisioned this new nation that blacks will have to create: it’s really a second act of crossover, this time in reverse, that follows blacks crossing over to sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Once all the “ifs” take place—protesting, going to jail, struggling, then “all of God’s children, 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!’” In a sense, by having whites sing “we are free at last,” King has invited them into a universal black “we.” This is truly a stunning moment: King has turned whites into symbolic blacks so they can now experience black bondage and deliverance as their own. This “blackening” of whites takes place in what is widely seen as one of the most exultant performances of universalism in all of American culture.

First you invite blacks to cross over to whites, and then the reverse–

Exactly. He’s allowed whites into the black experience.

So it’s not just a matter of assimilation in one direction?


Is this what you call King’s “hybrid vision” in The Word of the Lord is Upon Me? Not some one-way assimilation but a drawing together of blacks and whites, so black history becomes part of American history, a history we all share.

Absolutely. It’s easy to miss this because the nation tends to be unaware of the depth of King’s profound sense of blackness and the kind of language and identity he presented when he was in all-black settings. King grew up in a world of all-black institutions: Auburn Ave., the black church, Morehouse College. It wasn’t until he went to divinity school that he left an all-black world. The church of Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, proclaims itself “unashamedly black.” But the blackness of Ebenezer Baptist Church was so taken for granted in King’s world there was no need to proclaim it.

You emphasize King’s love of blacks, his blackness, if you will–yet he’s not a black power figure. In fact, in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he criticizes Elijah Mohammed for having lost faith in America. What is the difference between King’s sense of blackness and what we have with black power and other forms of black nationalism?

King objected more to black supremacy than he did to black power, although he felt the phrase unnecessarily drove away white allies and deprived black claims of their moral legitimacy. You can hear him in Birmingham mass meetings talking about how blacks need to patronize black businesses and demand black policemen and gain political power. But the core of his theology is a love of humanity, and he saw black hatred of whites as just as sinful as white hatred of blacks, and he couldn’t abide either. Once again, in Christ there is no east or west, no black or white. Even the white racist sinner could be born again.

But King’s theological tenets coexisted with his deep love of black people. In the beginning of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he says that he is there because injustice is here; when he’s talking to blacks in Selma, he says, “I am here because my people are suffering.” That feeling of black solidarity explains why he was always so empathetic with black bitterness. Even when he rejected the Nation of Islam and their hatred of the white man, he almost always put that hatred in the exonerating context of white racism. Similarly, even though he would urge black audiences “to love the white man,” he would say, “Ohhh, it’s not easy to love the white man,” and reassure the audience that that didn’t mean they had to “like the white man.” After the Watts riots, King told a black church in Los Angeles with great pathos, “I know the temptation [to bitterness] that comes to all of us.” He truly means “all of us”; he’s included himself inside the community of black hatred. King himself had gone through a period of hating white people, and as an adult, when he caught a glimpse of Malcolm X on television, there were times he felt the old bitterness rising.

You mention the importance of King’s theology. When King is made into a popular American hero, there’s a tendency to make his Christianity into something instrumental, but when you read his speeches it does not feel instrumental at all.

Nothing is more central to King than his Christian faith. When I started out interviewing King’s colleagues, one of the first things Rev. C. T. Vivian told me, and Joseph Lowery said basically the same thing, was that if you want to understand King, read the four gospels. It’s worth underlining that King was such a good code switcher that the intensity of his love of Jesus wasn’t always obvious to people who weren’t in black churches to hear him. Early on, in synagogues and before Jewish organizations, he learned to go light on Jesus. Some have observed that King’s pal and fellow prophet, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, felt comfortable around King because Exodus was so central to the movement. In truth, Exodus did not figure prominently in King’s weekly sermons. It was Jesus, not Moses, he identified with. When you hear him say, “America you must be born again,” when you hear the tremulous “Ohhh” he emits while “hooping” it up, when you hear him say “I’ve been anointed to deliver the captives,” you know there was fire locked up in his bones. There was nothing opportunistic or shallow about his Christianity.

Is there not also the idea in his speeches that the words of the Declaration of Independence are true because it’s religiously true that all men are created equal, not because the Founders happened to say it? I get the sense that for King what makes the dream of America a dream we can share is precisely that it is grounded in a higher truth.

Yes. American values are compelling to the extent that they reflect God’s love for all his children. In 1968 at a mass meeting in Mongomery, Alabama, King proclaimed “Do you know that in America the white man…made a national policy that said in substance, the only good Indian is a dead Indian? Now a nation that got started like that has a lot of repentin’ to do.” He really means America is a sinful nation. That’s a far cry from American exceptionalism.

In a speech on the Fourth of July, 1965, also titled “The American Dream,” King says,

about two years ago now I stood with many of you who stood there in person and all of you who were there in spirit before the Lincoln Monument in Washington. As I came to the end of my speech there I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare. I’ve seen it shattered.

Then he gives a series of examples of murders: Selma, a Reverend Reed was clubbed by a vicious racist and later died, etc. What are your reflections on the post-1963 experience for King, after this great moment when there seemed to be more promise? You referred earlier to the backlash kicking in. What of the Dream after the dream speech?

Even in 1963, King was not naïve about the power of moral rhetoric to awaken white Americans. In a Birmingham mass meeting, you hear a bristling King say: “Don’t you ever think anybody is gonna give us anything. The only advances we’ve made is when we’ve got them ourselves through our protest and our pressure.” He knows that black people are mainly alone in an indifferent nation. Nor does he think that very many whites have very much empathy. At the meeting where the SCLC [Southern Leadership Christian Conference] leadership made the decision to go all in on Birmingham, King said, “some of us in this room are probably not gonna come back from Birmingham alive.” Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, who was in the room when he said that, told me, “we sometimes thought King was being melodramatic, but King had a better understanding of the depth of racism in America and believed that he was going to be killed at a very young age.”

So there wasn’t a sudden shift from the Dream to the Nightmare. But it is true that as the white backlash kicked in, King became increasingly pessimistic about the pace of change. By the late 1960s, the accusations by fellow blacks that he was an Uncle Tom and the general decline in the status of nonviolence discouraged him. King had to fight harder and harder to feel that things would turn out. The valleys seemed deeper, the mountains steeper.

But King’s optimism was always deductive; as he would say, hope had an “in spite of” character. It rested on his faith that “the Lord will make a way out of no way,” that after the Crucifixion comes the Resurrection, that the Promised Land lies beyond Egypt and the wilderness. These religious convictions that God was committed to a just universe began to clash against the empirical evidence of white resistance.

As you’ve been speaking about King and his dream, I’ve been thinking that his is a vision of hope through creative protest. The protest is crucial–the dream is not going to be realized by itself nor will words be enough.

That is central to everything King believed in: it goes back to what I said earlier that blacks have to “bring that day.” It’s why I call his refinement of the deliverance tradition the existential version of deliverance. In March of 1963, when he was back at Ebenezer preaching, this was a few weeks before the Birmingham protests started, King told the story about a friendly white observer who wrote him that blacks were in too much of a hurry, and if they prayed, things would turn out. But King got mad not at the white person who said be patient but at the black people who were sitting on the sidelines. He told the story about when Moses went to God and said “the children of Israel are complaining and they’re murmuring,” and God said basically, “tell the children of Israel not to wait for me, they should go forward, they have to do it.” And that’s what King did to the prophetic tradition—and many other black ministers did it as well—he said that “yes, God’s constitutive act may be to deliver the captives, but you cannot passively wait for God to deliver you. You must act to free yourself.”

Works and Speeches cited

Franklin, C. L. “Moses at the Red Sea.” Give Me This Mountain: Life Story and Selected Sermons. Ed. Jeff Todd Titon. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Kennedy, John F. “Address on Civil Rights.” 11 June 1963.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. Address to a mass meeting. Montgomery, AL. 17 February 1968.

———. Address to the mass meeting at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Birmingham, AL. 22 April 1963.

———.  “The American Dream.” Lincoln University, Lincoln University, PA. 6 June 1961.

———. “The American Dream.” Sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Atlanta, GA. 4 July 1965.

———. “Answer to a Perplexing Question.” Ebenezer Baptist Church. 3 March 1963.

———. “I Have a Dream.” Address to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Washington, DC. 28 August 1963.

———. “If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins.” Speech to the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO. Bal Harbour, FL. 11 December 1961.

———. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Birmingham, AL. 16 April 1963.

———. Sermon at Zion Baptist Church. Los Angeles, CA. 17 June 1966.

———. Speech at the Great March on Detroit. Detroit, MI. 23 June 1963.

Rieder, Jonathan. The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

———. Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Jonathan Rieder is Professor of Sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University. Among his books are The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. (2010) and the just published Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation (2013).

Joseph E. Davis is Research Associate Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and Editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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