‘I have a dream’ is how the Rev. Martin Luther King highlighted his momentous speech in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, and that phrase resonates strongly. His address was the centerpiece of the historic March on Washington, which involved over 200,000 people.
In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy had addressed the nation, underscoring the importance of his administration’s proposed civil rights legislation.
King’s efforts were part of a massive current of historic change in American race relations.
In 1955, Rosa Parks helped spark the modern civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery Alabama. Early in the 20th century, A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly black labor union. These leaders and others built the American civil rights movement.
King’s leadership qualities were recognized while he was still young. Striking rhetorical skill was one key ingredient, cast in charismatic delivery. He was also often, though not always, a shrewd politician.
We honor King not because he was a perfect man, but rather for personal courage as catalyst for the civil rights revolution. Initially he was reluctant to assume leadership beyond his local community, concerned about physical safety. He took on the job nonetheless, and persevered until his assassination in the spring of 1968.
Especially in the case of a murdered martyr, we tend to idealize the leader. That is unfortunate for two reasons. First, oversimplifying the complexity of the human spirit can easily diminish the person described. The leader actually seems less consequential as the internal personal as well as external battles that define courage are erased. Second, oversimplifying past times limits our own capacity to draw the most accurate and therefore best lessons for our future.
King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which preached racial integration and nonviolent tactics, became challenged by a range of radical groups. The Congress of Racial Equality staked out much more militant ground. The separatist Black Panther Party, always a very small fringe faction, nonetheless garnered enormous media attention through alarming rhetoric and occasional violence.
As the turmoil of the 1960s grew, King seemed to become overshadowed by the militants and the violence they preached, both near the end of his life and for a time thereafter. The fact that he and his message endure from that era, so sharply defined, testifies to the value of his leadership.
Fully making this point requires including noteworthy white political leaders. President Lyndon B. Johnson secured passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, with vital help from Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen. Less visible today is President Harry S. Truman’s historic decision in 1948 to desegregate the armed forces.
Also in 1948, at the Democratic National Convention, young Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey pressed to include civil rights in the party platform. Many advised Humphrey against this; he persevered successfully. In the resulting maelstrom, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina led southern delegates in bolting the convention and establishing the breakaway Dixiecrat Party. In the fall election, Dixiecrat presidential nominee Thurmond won southern states, but Truman nonetheless was re-elected.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a particularly important leader, and without him another, much less desirable, national course might have resulted. Both his message and efforts were fully congruent with our most fundamental principles.
President Barack Obama’s political success personifies King’s victory.