On August 28, 1963, I attended the March on Washington. I don’t remember it, but I’m told that I spent most of the day squirming in my stroller.
I was two years old.
But I wasn’t alone. Like the civil rights movement itself, the crowd shaded towards the young side. And, like me, 25 percent of the people who converged on the Mall were white.
The March on Washington was racially integrated, in other words, just like the society it envisioned. But that’s also the part of the March—and its vision—we often omit from our memory of the event, which marks its 50th anniversary on Wednesday.
To left-leaning Americans, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech underscores the ongoing inequalities that African-Americans face in employment, education, and criminal justice. Meanwhile, people on the right invoke King’s hope that his four children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” To conservatives, this comment demonstrates King’s “color-blindness” and his alleged aversion to affirmative action.
Never mind that King actually supported “compensatory consideration” for the “handicaps” that African-Americans “inherited from the past,” as he wrote in 1964. The real problem is that both sides neglect King’s rousing call for racial integration, which was the sine qua non of a just society.
That’s what Brown v. Board of Education said nine years earlier, when it ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and that segregating black children “may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” And the same vision lay at the heart of King’s March on Washington speech.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” King intoned. “I have a dream that one day down in Alabama . . . little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers.”
King extemporized the final “dream” lines of his speech; in his prepared remarks, he closed with a more conventional call for civil rights legislation. According to a much-repeated story, singer Mahalia Jackson—who had performed earlier in the day—called out, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”
King had used the dream metaphor in at least five other speeches. So had earlier generations of African-American freedom fighters, from Frederick Douglass to Langston Hughes. “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed,” wrote Hughes in 1936, seven years after he graduated from Lincoln University in Chester County.
But King’s dream was explicitly integrationist, calling on whites as well as blacks to build a truly shared nation. And it was precisely that vision that thrilled his multi-racial audience in August of 1963, turning what had been a rather humdrum address into our most iconic national oration. By the late 1980s, more high school seniors could identify the source of “I have a dream” than the opening words of the Gettysburg Address or the Declaration of Independence.
Standing on the steps of a monument to Abraham Lincoln, King alluded to the Gettysburg Address by noting that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation “fivescore years ago.” And he quoted the Declaration of Independence, of course, asking America to “live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
But as the rest of his speech made clear, Americans could never live out this creed if they lived apart from each other. That’s the only way to understand King’s closing crescendo, where he called on Americans of all races and creeds “join hands” and sing an “old Negro spiritual”:
Free at last! Free at last!Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
The traditional version of the spiritual says “I’m free at last,” which also appears on King’s tombstone in Atlanta. But he changed it to “we” at the March on Washington, because freedom was a shared state. Saluting the whites attending the march, King said their freedom was “inextricably bound” to his own. “We cannot walk alone,” King declared.
But we do. Consider that the number of all-minority census tracts in the United States doubled between 1980 and 2010. Meanwhile, 43 percent of Latinos and 38 percent of blacks attend schools where less than 10 percent of their classmates are white. Indeed, our schools are now more segregated than they were during the civil rights era itself.
I was a “little white boy”—to quote Martin Luther King–in 1963, and I grew up mostly apart from blacks. So have my two daughters, who attended a nominally “integrated” high school but–thanks to so-called ability tracking–rarely shared classrooms with African-Americans. If that’s OK, King was wrong. But if he was right, as I believe he was, then there’s something wrong with all of us.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).