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Why We Should Stop Celebrating the 'I Have a Dream' Speech

03/13/2013 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2013

16 April 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities, "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day and I would have no time for constructive work. ... I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against "outsiders coming in." I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. ... Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

-- Letter From A Birmingham Jail


Though planning around the country has begun already for the celebration of the "I Have A Dream" speech, I would like to see all of it call to a halt and have the entire nation focus upon this letter penned by Dr. King three months before the Dream speech while being held in jail. Unfortunately, we have allowed the Dream speech to become a part of us in a way that does not call us to truly respond to the Martin Luther King who penned the letter. How convenient for us as a nation. The poetry and the drama of the Dream speech are satisfactory to us, but the challenge to our nation to confront its willingness to practice injustice is not satisfactory. So many folks can quote small parts of the Dream speech and most folks have not read the letter, nor do they intend to read it.

I think that we should place a moratorium on the Dream speech. I do not want to celebrate it and will not until I see the ideas and spirit of the letter being more fully lived in this nation. Of course it was a wonderful day in Washington that day with all of those thousands of people gathered and that young black preacher standing there delivering his powerful message of hope. But as a nation we took that speech and that day as a part of the King that we could stand to promote and it is not helping us get to the Beloved Community. We have not taken the radical message from the letter and other works of Martin Luther King into our hearts and minds as he was dreaming for us to do on that day in August of 1963.

Until we put forth a greater effort to truly internalize the real Martin Luther King Jr. and his message, we need to be careful about organizing any type of celebrations, especially ones that celebrates a dream that is yet to be realized. The reality of the daily life of millions of our sisters and brothers bears witness to the fact that the dream is a long way from being realized. The fact that we continue to host the wars that kill our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world, the daily killing of our own children largely because of the poverty and spiritual deprivation in our blighted neighborhoods that we work so hard to forget and the constant assault upon the most vulnerable among us, offer a deafening reminder of how far from the dream we are. We have had 50 years to make progress in creating the Beloved Community, but as of today we have nothing to celebrate in terms of truly creating such a community. Yes, we have made some changes but the work left to be done shines a blinding light in our eyes and we can only bow our heads as a nation.

All planning for celebrating the Dream speech needs to cease. We need to distribute copies of the letter to everyone, at least to all who want to work on planning to celebrate the Dream speech, and spend the remainder of the year reading it and reflecting upon its challenges. We need to resurrect the King message in the letter and decide what our celebrations will be based upon how well we are responding to that message. The message that continues to call us to seek justice and to understand that "a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."