Demonstrators gather across from Lafayette Park facing the White House in Washington DC, while protesting against police brutality and racism. Photo: AFP

Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, at the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” There is a sense in which the speech and the march marked the moral zenith in civil rights in the US. Shortly thereafter, the moral imperative was eclipsed by the appeal to power. Today, the very ground upon which the moral imperative stood has disappeared.

The march was attended by 250,000 people, three-quarters of whom were African-American. It sparked a belief in many, especially among the young, that the opportunity was at hand to give full citizenship rights to black people.

Actual legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was still to come, but the march inspired a growing spirit of hope. Among the performers were Joan Baez singing “We Shall Overcome,” Odetta singing “I’m on My Way,” and Peter, Paul and Mary giving their famous performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” This was a spirit crossing racial lines, based on a belief in a common humanity.

King’s speech was the highlight. It appealed to a person’s character, not his race:

“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 but by the content of their character.”

This is very Christian. It places judgment, and responsibility, on the person, not his class. It is radically different from the view held by many today that identity is more important than the person. But it is not the only line that shows radical difference between King and activists of today.

For King, America had failed not because its fundamental philosophy was wrong, but because it had failed to live up to the promise of that philosophy. He states,

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note 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.'”

It was time to collect on that note:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”

He hopes for brotherhood, not identity politics where groups vie for advantage:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.… One day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

His dream will not be achieved by African-Americans alone, but with the help of their white brothers:

“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.”

Freedom’s day would not be achieved by fundamentally changing America, but instead by living up to its fundamentals:

“This be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

“And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”

Within three months of the March on Washington, president John F Kennedy would be assassinated. Lyndon Johnson would win the 1964 presidential election and almost immediately begin to crank up the Vietnam War. By 1965, the soft words of “Blowin’ in the Wind” would change to the rage of Barry McGuire singing “Eve of Destruction.”

Although the civil-rights laws inspired by the march would pass in 1964 and 1965, the dream of Martin Luther King would be replaced by the black-power movement of Malcom X, Huey Newton, and Stokely Carmichael. Race riots were on the horizon.

The United States was moving inexorably toward 1968, when King and Robert Kennedy would be assassinated, violence would engulf the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the US troop level in Vietnam would reach 549,500. The dreams of Martin Luther King were being eroded. These were times for rage.

In race relations today we witness a repudiation of King’s dream of a nation where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Especially among the political class, people are expected to see themselves as members of a group, black or white, and the rules are to be different, determined by who has the power.

This view is not irrational. On average, and across many categories, there are differences between groups, and in many cases the differences are not minor. Power can provide a path to mitigate these differences, or even reverse them.

Is this not the purpose of war, one tribe or nation gaining at the expense of another through the use of force? But here we are talking about a war between factions within a single society, that is, civil war. One must ask whether class warfare, which often results in a tyrannical regime, is better than continuing with the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as envisaged by the American Founders, and by Dr King.

The problem with King’s dream is that it is inclusive, whereas often political power more easily accrues to those who play on resentment and are divisive.

Resentment, perhaps the key driver of modern political passions, was inspired to a great extent by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. Resentment stoked the fires of the French Revolution and drove its carnage.

The economic class war has always been a case of the poor resenting the rich (and let us not absolve the rich from responsibility). Resentment drives tribal hatred and today is used to split the races and the sexes. It is an easy game to play.

For politicians who play the game, the aim is power, and the factions created are a means to that power. In a secular world, where there is no universal moral code, power becomes the sole arbiter. There is no God to write the natural law, but only human beings to measure their individual advantage.

The world in which King had a dream no longer exists. He was a Christian in an essentially Christian nation, and he could appeal to the morality of Christianity. The white man had to understand that God’s natural law, which anchored the Declaration of Independence, ipso facto applied to the black man. It was not a human choice, but a mandate of God, that the black man had to be free.

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Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.