Dreams are funny things.
For starters, there are many different types of dreams.
There are the kind you have when you’re asleep, and involve falling, flying, being chased and going to work or to school buck naked.
Then there are the kind you have when you’re awake. Some of these involve things that could come true, like getting a college degree, finding Mr. or Miss Right, finishing a marathon, growing a prize-winning rose, having children or breaking 80 on the golf course.
PDF transcript of full speech as delivered Aug. 28, 1963 | Photo slideshow of March on Washington
Then there are those wide-awake dreams that could come true, but likely won’t, like becoming a famous athlete, making it big in Hollywood, dating George Clooney, winning “American Idol,” earning a Nobel Prize (or, in the case of ink-stained wretches like me, a Pulitzer Prize) or becoming president of the United States.
These are all dreams with a narrow focus, directed toward ourselves. There also are broad, wide-ranging dreams that not only change lives, but the course of human history.
Such was the dream Martin Luther King Jr. expressed a half-century ago today, as he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, looking at a sea of people sprawling across the national mall as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The speech has become known as the “I have a dream,” address, but the concept of dreams was not in King’s original script.
About midway through the speech, a voice rang out. It was that of the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson.
“Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream.”
At that point, according to witnesses present that historic day, King pushed aside his prepared notes and began to speak off the cuff. In fact, he was no longer speaking, he was preaching.
Up to that point, it was a perfectly fine speech, one that would have undoubtedly been remembered as a footnote to the civil rights movement of the early 1960s.
But when he began to talk about his dream, King’s speech ascended to another level. He began to tell the world of his dream that the color of one’s skin would make no difference, none, in the life of any American, and that all men and women, of any color, would be able to live their lives proud of their race, not burdened by it.
King’s dream has yet to be realized. This country has made great strides, to be sure. People of color are no longer denied the right to vote, to live where they choose, to eat in restaurants or stay in hotels when and where they want, to attend the university of their choice or to send their children to any school. The president of the United States is a man of color, as are other leaders in politics, industry and medicine, as well as the arts and athletics.
But color still matters. We still label and define people by their race, their nationality. We might not say it out loud, but we know we do it, even those who consider themselves accepting, enlightened.
King spoke of freedom. But we are not free from the yoke of racism. It is not as blatant as it was in King’s day, but it still exists, and for that reason, King’s dream has yet to be realized.
King spoke of equality. But we are not equal in economic terms. A study released earlier this year by Brandeis University found that the wealth gap between blacks and whites has nearly tripled in the past 25 years. The Pew Research Center reported in 2009 that the median wealth of white households was 20 times that of black households, and 18 times that of Hispanic households.
Some dreams are merely wishes. We can say we dream of winning the lottery, but we cannot make it happen.
Other waking dreams are realistic goals. We can make King’s dream of true racial equality and harmony come true. But achieving that dream requires will, desire and hard work.
In addition to dreams, King likewise spoke of faith. “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
A beautiful symphony of brotherhood. Now that’s a dream worth working toward.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.