The Common Good
September/October 2010

The Content of Our Character

by Vincent G. Harding | September/October 2010

Why do so many try to lighten the impact of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech?

I often find us Americans trying to lighten the impact of Martin Luther King, to avoid or ignore the powerful challenges this demanding pastor and prophet presents to us all. Nowhere is this escapist process more evident than in our Sunday school approach to the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech—beginning with our choosing to forget that it was delivered in a controversial setting, the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

King’s references to children are among the most misused and misunderstood elements of the speech. He and Coretta had only recently experienced the birth of their fourth child. He and I were, with our wives and children, Atlanta-based neighbors and co-workers at the time; I know how important children were to him. So it is clear to me that the speech’s two major references to children were not meant to be sentimental throw-away lines.
First, he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” That, of course, has become a favorite statement cherry-picked from the speech, often by persons who seek to avoid acknowledging and dealing with the continuing destructive power of racism in our nation.
With that dangerous, light-weighting process in mind, I have lately asked myself and others, how do we really measure the content of a child’s character? How do we measure anyone’s character, including our own? Can we do it without intentionally opening ourselves to each other, without coming close to each other, without sharing one another’s stories, aspirations, hopes, and fears?
King’s second dream-sharing statement about children is much less quoted: “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification”—does that mean the same as ‘We must take our country back’?—that “one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!”
Nearly half a century later, it seems clear to me that the challenge to realize such a dream is worth our deepest thoughts, our most creatively audacious community organizing, as well as politically and financially costly local and national policy changes.
How do our children, all our children—African American, many kinds of white children, Latino, Native American, Asian American, Middle Eastern, and especially the poor—how do they all become claimed as “ours” by all of us? How do they all get close enough to each other, on a regular basis, to hold hands? Surely our re-visioned, re-created schools, communities, religious institutions, and democratized civic leadership have some role here.
Perhaps King knew that our own as well as our children’s freedom depended on all of us finding our lost sisters and brothers. Perhaps he also knew that it was only in such struggles for our multiracial, democratic family that we ultimately discover and develop the true content of our character on a personal and national level.
So as we teach our children (and ourselves) to prepare for active, costly, thoughtful participation as creative citizens of a multiracial, democratic, national family, we are compelled to delve into the transformative possibilities of King’s dream. As we engage with a world community seeking to rediscover its post-industrial purpose and direction on an endangered Mother Earth, we do well to remember King’s call for compassionate, life-giving “soul force” to replace our own long, crippling dependence on extractive force and death-dealing military power.
Let us instead stand quietly in awe of life itself and of our great national and personal potentials for sharing, building, and enhancing life. Perhaps we shall then discover not only the content of our character, but the deepest meaning and purpose of our freedom, constantly singing with King, and with all the other known and unknown continuing creators of our forever emerging nation, “Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, we’re free at last.”

Vincent G. Harding
, professor emeritus at Iliff School of Theology and co-founder of Veterans of Hope Project, is a historian, author, and activist.
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