I was a watcher on August 28, 1963, a frustrated teenager in front of a TV in Chicago. I longed to be linking arms with this movement, working to finally fulfill Lincoln's promise of a government "... of the people, by the people, and for the people ... ." My age, the distance, and especially my gender defeated my ambition. It was another watcher that day -- President John Kennedy -- whose absence proved to be of true consequence. JFK's choice to be a "bystander" and not a moral leader in the struggle for human equality, as reporter Nick Bryant has documented, haunts us still.
How different would America be now if Kennedy had stood then with people struggling for jobs and freedom, instead of arming the District of Columbia to the teeth with the prospect of so many black people coming to town? Would the U.S. Senate's office building still be named for a rabidly racist Georgia segregationist, Senator Richard B. Russell? What if Kennedy had reined in Dr. King's purblind antagonist, J. Edgar Hoover? Might we be spared the embarrassment of the "J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building" and so much more intrusion and intimidation from those who should be serving us? Would an obscenely inflated "black budget" continue to fund stunning ineptness?
No matter I could not be present in 1963, really. Being thwarted proved a great motivator in years to come. Not for me John Milton's "They also serve who only stand and wait." And I was not denied watching Dr. King deliver his speech. Like millions, I was transported there by television (which has not only turned out to be a very sharp two-edged sword but also the context in which I've spent my entire working life). I do remember the speech itself, vividly, but not as it has become romanticized.
What I remember most was a profound sense of dread. We'd had firsthand reports that Washington was crawling with armed forces, only later learning of the magnitude of Kennedy's gigantic militaristic response to nonviolence protest. Would JFK set all those armed forces loose on to the masses? It was an open question until the very end. Kennedy's readiness to rely on violence in the face of resistance to the status quo is a raging American infection that continues to bedevil us. Witness the outsized power of America's intrenched gun lobby, or our reflexive militarily meddling in the Middle East. Violence begets violence.
Dr. King's majestic "Dream" of equality was also wonderfully down to earth. His soaring rhetoric recreated the "promissory note" America had issued in our founding documents. This may have been the Founder's dream, but Dr. King showed it for what it was -- a delusion. He spoke plainly of America's "bad check" written against that promissory note, with millions excluded from decent jobs or the decency justice enables. Fifty years on, Dr. King's entire message still rings true, even with a laudable person of color now resident in the same White House from which JFK peeked out the window on that August day.
The part of Dr. King's speech that turned out to affect me most directly was his glorious geography lesson. Having lived now in many of the places he named then, I've encountered racism as firmly rooted in the hills of Indiana and Idaho as in the red clay of Georgia, spirits yearning as much to be free in upstate New York and downstate Illinois as they are throughout Alabama. Look no further than voter suppression -- the American South Dr. King described as "sweltering with the heat of injustice" continues to show the rest of the nation how to disempower the people. Today, they're disgracefully aided and abetted by an activist Supreme Court intent on advancing corporate power while thwarting that of the people ... real, flesh and blood people, not the Supreme Court created Frankenstein of "corporate people".
Still! Dr. King's now-immortal words points us toward a better world. Call it a Dream. Call it Hope. Call it a "past due" notice on that promissory note. By whatever name one choses, a sovereign people must engage on behalf of that better world Dr. King called us all to envision. We, as a bold experiment in self-government, embody the energizing spirit he named for us. His dream and our hope are not delusions, not optimism either, and certainly not the absurd illusion we're now "post-racial". The future -- as well as the present -- is what we make of it. That's how dreams come true: "We ... will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water."