Among other civil rights milestones, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the historic rally that concluded with Martin Luther King Jr. unleashing his most legendary words on a watching nation. Today, "I Have a Dream" stands alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address as possibly the most significant piece of American rhetoric known to the world. However, it's become pretty common over the past few decades for those of us who regularly opine on King's legacy to take a contrarian stance and push back against the notion that "I Have a Dream" was his defining statement to the world.
Scholars such as James Cone and Michael Eric Dyson have vehemently argued that the bright-eyed King of the dream rhetoric must make way for the more pessimistic and radical King that came later. As Vincent Harding, a personal friend of King's who is currently a professor of religion at Morehouse College, put it, "We Americans have insisted that King live forever in the unbroken sunlight of that historic August day on the Mall when hundreds of thousands of us stood in that place, and millions more gathered before television sets across the nation, to affirm our solidarity with his vision of racial harmony and triumphant freedom."
The problem with the "Dream language," says Howard Divinity School professor Cheryl Sanders, is that it draws attention away from the comprehensive message of King's life. "There's a danger of only seeing him as a dreamer," adds Sanders, who is also the pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C. "If we only see him as a dreamer, we too easily let ourselves off the hook from dealing ...1