Legacy of the ‘dream’: New book studies Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous oration

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 9/6/2013, 6 a.m.

But Younge says that much of this historical backdrop has been lost in how most Americans think about King and his speech half a century later. So instead of the radical “indictment of American racism” that once had the federal government scared, the address is today seen as “patriotic,” Younge says, so much so that even “hard Republicans would never admit to not liking it.”

The softening of King’s image — that is, the erasure of the radical aspects of his life and work — has meant that much of “I have a dream” has been “misused and misappropriated.”

One of the best examples is King’s line that people should not be judged “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” which is frequently employed by conservatives to oppose affirmative action and other policies designed to benefit people of color. But as he points out, King himself was a strong proponent of affirmative action — to suggest that his words meant otherwise is “ridiculous” and “unconscionable.”

“It’s a phrase used by people eager to portray racism as an egregious historical episode that’s happened and has now been solved,” says Younge, who notes that this is the same logic that was also used to undermine the Voting Rights Act in June. “They use it to say, ‘We will not take race into account, and therefore we will never take racism into account.’”

For Younge, the legacy of King’s speech is a reminder of the forgetfulness of public memory. “He said to us, ‘It’s not so useful that everybody has the right to eat at the same establishment if they can’t afford what’s on the menu,’” Younge says.

“He’s misunderstood as a guy who just wants people to be nice to each other, but when you look at his life trajectory, he’s clearly calling for an entire systemic shift.”