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American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. sits on a couch and speaks on the telephone after encountering a white mob protesting against the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala., on May 26, 1961.
American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. sits on a couch and speaks on the telephone after encountering a white mob protesting against the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala., on May 26, 1961. Express Newspapers/Getty Images
E. Ethelbert Miller is the board chairman of the Institute for Policy Studies. He has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University since 1974. Miller is a former chairman of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., and a former core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He is the editor of Poet Lore and the author of several collections of poetry and two memoirs.
Back in the old days of vinyl albums and those sweet 45s, there was often a flip side of a hit song that you wanted to dance to more than anything else. It was the side not played on the radio but instead hummed perhaps during the privacy of one's shower.
When I listen to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, I'm always curious as to why many of us overlook the opening statements of his 1963 address. It's as if we only hear one side of his speech. Why do we quickly repeat the words "I have a dream," and not the words "America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' But we refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation."
I feel these words by King are also inspiring. King spoke of a debt before he spoke of the dream. This is important to remember because it shows his focus on economic conditions and problems in America. King was concerned not only with fighting segregation and discrimination, but also with fighting poverty. During his last year he was organizing a poor people's campaign to come to Washington, D.C.
It was the labor demands of sanitation workers that encouraged him to travel to Memphis in 1968. King knew it took hard work to fulfill a dream.
Courtesy of E. Ethelbert Miller
E. Ethelbert Miller is the board chairman of the Institute for Policy Studies. He has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University since 1974.
In 2010, poverty can disguise itself by hiding behind unemployment lines, housing foreclosures and the inability of a young person to afford a college education. When we look around our nation, many businesses are suffering from insufficient funds, as are too many families.
Once again, we wonder if the great vaults of America are still rich with opportunities for everyone.
The "fierce urgency of now" is what King mentioned back in 1963. But how long is "now"? Every year we cling dearly to the last lines of King's speech — because of their poetic beauty. King's words echo those of Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. I believe he heard America singing.
Our hearts today are too large to simply contain sorrow songs and blues. In 2010, we need to know which side of the record is playing — the dream or the debt. When we celebrate King's birthday, we shouldn't just remember and examine one speech. The man, the minister, the prophet is too complex for that. Yet his "I Have a Dream" speech should be understood in its entirety. Next to his speeches, we should place his sermons. Here we will find King's compassion for his fellow man. Here we will continue to discover words that will provide us with the strength to love.