08/29/2013 02:20 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2013

What Was the America of 'I Have a Dream' All About?

I was only 18, 50 years ago yesterday, when, against official advice warning of violence, a few of my friends and I trekked to the Lincoln Memorial from suburban Maryland for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That experience, and Dr. King's speech, propelled me two years later into rural Phillips County, Arkansas and the second phase of Freedom Summer as a Field Secretary for (now Congressman) John Lewis and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

From Lewis through President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, Americans have had the opportunity in the last 24 hours to learn a lot about how Dr. King's Dream played out over the last 50 years. I want to provide a little context -- what was that America like if you were not part of a racially divided South? What assumptions were all of the actors that summer, and the two which followed before Lyndon Johnson proclaimed, "We shall overcome," passed the Voting Rights Act, and in his phrase, "turned the South over to the Republican party for a generation," making? What did they anticipate would happen if America were to enfranchise and include Blacks in the American dream? What did Dr. King assume it meant when he said that he wanted his children to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin?

I'll begin by pointing out that Martin Luther King was assassinated five years later not in a voter registration drive, or a school desegregation struggle, but in a garbage workers strike. He was killed not in the Deep South -- Mississippi, Alabama, or his own Georgia -- but in a state, Tennessee, which was one of 13 virtuous states not covered by any of the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

I offer myself as a contract to the Memphis garbage workers. I felt so safe in that America that even when a Deputy Sheriff in Helena, Arkansas cuffed me about and threatened to sink my "long haired ass" in the Mississippi river if I ever came back into town I wasn't -- except at the moment -- particularly scared. And I never knew that Reverend Price, the Methodist Minister who kindly hosted me for Sunday dinner during my summer in Arkansas, had Molotov cocktails thrown on his porch for his hospitality.

I took the summer of 1965 off without a single moment of worry about student loans to be repaid. My parents were solidly middle class, and I was attending an Ivy League School -- where I didn't qualify for a scholarship because it was no hardship for the average American government worker to send a kid to Harvard. My parents made it clear to me that what was important for my success in life was to find a career I liked, would work hard and be good at -- but what career and what academic credentials I brought to it , however strong their moral worth ethic, were not viewed as make or break decisions about my success. Hard work was all that was required. No one went to private primary or secondary school because public schools weren't good enough to get educated or prestigious enough to ensure a good life.

Blacks were excluded from this entire WWII, GI Bill-spawned safety net. They couldn't go to the same public schools, or get the same middle class jobs, or live in the same FHA or VA financed neighborhoods, or even ride the buses on those federally financed Interstate Highways. So the Civil Rights struggle, in a basic sense, was premised on the notion that if you could obtain for blacks the same civil, legal rights enjoyed by whites, opportunities and security would follow -- because the rest of America had achieved them.

Neither Dr. King, nor President Johnson, nor Governor Wallace could have imagined that once America opened the doors to the middle class to African-Americans, it would start dismantling the entire post-War edifice of opportunity and access for most Americans, white and black. In less time than it took America to move from the key Supreme Court equal rights decision, Brown v. Board of Education, to the Voting Rights Act, post-Voting Rights Act America witnessed President Reagan's destruction of the union rights of the seemingly secure air traffic controllers, and the accelerating erosion of the middle class opportunity structure that the Civil Rights Movement fought to open up to all Americans.

And we should be clear. The U.S., per person, is far richer now than it was in 1963. Per capita income, in constant dollars, was less than half of what it is today. Whatever we could afford in 1963 -- including solid public education, affordable state universities and means testing free elite universities -- we can afford today. And we would still have as many resources left over to spend on new stuff as the America of 1963 had to spend on everything. The diminished American dream, the reality that now neither white nor blacks nor Hispanics can assume a fair shake even if they can vote and ride the bus, has not been imposed upon us.

We have chosen it. And looking back at the struggles of 50 years ago, we should ask ourselves, "Why?"

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."