LIANE HANSEN, host:
Perhaps the most well remembered words delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. were in his "I Have a Dream" speech. Poet E. Ethelbert Miller says there's more than just the dream in that speech.
Mr. E. ETHELBERT MILLER (Poet): 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 a 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 want to 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 vault 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 not 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.
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 Martin Luther 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 two laws that 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 Martin Luther 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 a strength to love.
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: Poet E. Ethelbert Miller is board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies and director of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University.
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: In his 1963, "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. King described the Constitution as a promissory note to all Americans regardless of race.
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Late Civil Rights Leader): 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 is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.
(Soundbite of applause)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.