In your presentations on Frederick Douglass's Narrative(s) last week, many groups discussed the failures of Reconstruction efforts designed to help disenfranchised and exploited African Americans — especially those efforts that intended to "speed up" equality after hundreds of years of enslavement and exploitation. That context is necessary to truly understand two of Martin Luther King's most famous texts: his Letter from a Birmingham Jail and his I Have a Dream Speech, delivered later that summer, 1963.
Dr. King was in that Birmingham jail, in part, because he non-violently refused to comply with racist laws. His letter is an attempt to answer his critics who questioned his actions. Many said to King and his colleagues that "the action [King and his colleagues] have taken in Birmingham is untimely." Dr. King, like many of you saw this argument as specious and cruel. Haven't African-Americans waited long enough? As King puts it in his Letter:
"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'"
Dr. King picks up on this idea at the start of his most famous (Dream) speech. First he echoes Lincoln's Gettysburg Address by saying recognizing the 100th anniversary: "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation." Then he launches into his main claim, "one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free."
Perhaps because the main text of his speech — racism and inequality — does not fit our comforting progress narrative, Dr. King's speech has been remembered for its uplift — as if the promised land were not a place to strive toward, but a land upon which we already stand.
Fifty years farther on, I'd like to raise this question again: Are we any closer to equality? Given the gross disparities in income, education, housing, criminal prosecution, etc., Are African-Americans — and all people of color — free today? And is it possible to be free if you are not economically free?
Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist wrote about this question earlier this year. There are some encouraging signs to be sure — but some deeply troubling ones as well. Blow ends his article by quoting Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: “Today there are more African-American adults under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”
Your turn. How would you answer the questions in bold above?