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The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaks in Eutaw, Ala., in this June 1965 photo. (The Associated Press — AP)
“We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of.” These words were spoken at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but they are probably unfamiliar to you. This quote is not part of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s so-called “I Have a Dream” speech. It is from the speech of then-chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and current Georgia congressman, Rev. John Lewis. We have domesticated the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom by focusing on King and the more inspirational elements of his speech.
August 28, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This anniversary has received widespread media attention, and the National Action Network organized the August 24th National Action to Realize the Dream March, which commemorated the 1963 March. Nevertheless, as discussed in William P. Jones’ The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, many of the more radical elements of the March on Washington have been erased from the popular narrative regarding the March.
For example, the March was a landmark event in the Civil Rights Movement, but “Jobs and Freedom” is often left out of the title. Referring to the March only as “The March on Washington” removes its original emphasis on addressing the political, economic, and social conditions that were facing African Americans and others deprived of their civil rights as U.S. citizens.
Also, the significance of the date of the March is typically not mentioned. The March was set to coincide with the eighth anniversary of the murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till. Till was kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi on August 28, 1955. His death, the acquittal of the accused (and later confessed) murderers, and the subsequent publicity, particularly the publication of photos of Till’s open casket, helped to galvanize anti-lynching efforts.
Furthermore, King’s address at the March, popularly known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, has become the focal point of our collective memory of the March. The ubiquitous black-and-white video clips of King at the Lincoln Memorial focus on his rhetorical repetition of “I have a dream,” “let freedom ring,” and his dramatic call for a diverse and inclusive America in which we hold hands and sing together “free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.” By highlighting King’s more positive points or ringing bells in his honor, I fear that we reduce his powerful comments to a “Moments in Black History” sound bite.
Typically, we do not mention how King’s speech touches on the historical hypocrisy of the U.S. in not fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Emancipation Proclamation. King states, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.” More often than not, such elements of the speech are neglected over in favor of King’s celebrated remarks regarding his hope for the future.
By focusing on King and his speech, we do not acknowledge the coalition of groups and the diversity of people who helped to organize and participate in the March. We do not recognize the substantial contributions of those who were excluded, including women activists such as Dorothy Height who were not permitted to serve as speakers during the official program, as well as those who did not support the March such as Stokely Carmichael.
Certainly, King’s speech provides admirable ideals. His words have become part of national lexicon and our national heritage. They call for a more inclusive and cohesive nation to which we still aspire. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, let us reflect not just on the current state of King’s Dream but on the current state of jobs and freedom.
As a biblical studies professor, I emphasize the importance of reading biblical texts in their historical and literary context to avoid turning them into bumper sticker slogans. Whether reading biblical texts or other classic texts of history or literature, we cannot focus merely on texts that provide comfort and solace if we are to be responsible stewards of their legacy.
Nyasha Junior is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @NyashaJunior.