Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” Turns 50

by Kent Sterling

martin-luther-king-jrSports is a meritocracy.  Good is good.  Great is great.  And bad is bad.  The belief systems of those watching has no bearing upon the analysis of productivity.  So sports was always ahead of the curve in race relations.

Long before Dr. King’s milestone prayer that one day his children would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, sports was integrated – minus several outposts of ignorance like the University of Kentucky basketball team and other southern athletic programs.

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For a long time, progress in race relations seemed to move at a glacial pace.  Regardless of right and wrong, belief systems tend to die rather than consciously evolve, and it’s taken the death of the most virulent racists to move the needle forward.  The easily led continue to see people as colors rather than human beings, but with every decade the schism narrows between the enlightened and the ignorant.

There are still small and strange examples of benign racism in sports, like the difficult to otherwise explain robust and vocal love for NBA players like Chris Anderson and Tyler Hansbrough.

Racism lives or dies one moment at a time, and the “I have a dream” was a big moment.  The words were delivered with passion, but without anger.  There was great opposition to King’s words that seems today to be ridiculous.  It was ridiculous then too, but because there was more of it, people who voiced it didn’t sound quite as dumb to one other.

My Dad always explained his lack of racism by saying, “There are plenty of reasons to dislike people before I get to their color or religion.”  Like many, he occasionally indulged in jokes that were based in race or religion, but he judged people without any genuine rancor because of surface issues like skin color.

My education about race was rooted in sports.  There were no blacks in the town 35 miles north of Chicago where I grew up.  Of 5,000 people, there were no blacks.  Zero.  My exposure to blacks was limited entirely to the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, and Bulls.  Ernie Banks and Gale Sayers were heroes.  They were the best at what they did, and I wanted to grow up to be just like them.  It never occurred to me that all black people weren’t just like Banks and Sayers, or that they were different from my neighbors.

I have never heard my son mention race.  It has never been discussed in our house, and thinking about it, that’s kind of odd.  He went to a preschool in Chicago that served the children of employees at Illinois Masonic Hospital, and it was a Noah’s Ark of nationalities.  There were kids from countries I’ve never heard of in his class.  If the UN needed a group of children to discuss global policies, this place would have been perfect.

That’s how racism has been conquered – mostly – through generational attrition and evolutionary enlightenment.  It wasn’t that people listened to King and decided, “Well, I can’t argue with that!”  But the words stand as a testament to the bravery of a man who spoke an unpopular truth at a time when it needed to be heard.  The speech has stood for 50 years as a guidepost for our society as it has emerged from ignorance to wisdom.

Generations have passed, and the idea of prejudice in 2013 seems insane.  It seems the product of an evil mind that belongs in a work of fiction.  That’s a long road from where the collective mind of America was 50 years ago today, but racism isn’t quite consigned to the dustbin of our history yet.  There are still places where color matters, and there are religions that proudly claim that only their members will be allowed in Heaven.

Maybe my son’s kids will have a better handle on that idiocy.  Until then, we can celebrate a man who put together words in a magical and divine order that continue to echo in our consciousness and drive our wisdom 50 years later.

Sports teams – particularly baseball and basketball – feature a panoply of nationalities, colors, and religions that represent the diversity of humanity.  They are judged by their on-field and on-court work, just as they should be.

That’s the enlightened land where the rest of us are headed, and hopefully it won’t take another 50 years to get there.

5 thoughts on “Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” Turns 50

  1. Steve Hufford

    Kent not sure if you are as old as me (61) but I know first hand about what happened in the 60’s and Dr. King. First there is no going around that there was racism in his time. There is no doubt he did good. But he was not a God. His preaching’s while noble caused much of the unrest that happened during his time. He was not Ghandi. He may have needed to have a harsher approach but the fact is he did not try to work in the system but tried to attack it. Most places including Memphis where he died had riots in cities he visited.

    As for the God thing he had many faults and maybe more than some of today’s politicians. He was a huge womanizer especially with white women. NO I am not racist just stating what he did. He more than most as a man of God should have known better. Jack Kennedy had nothing on Dr. King.

    Are we better off due to his work? Sure. Would we have been better off without him? Who knows? As we gradually got farther away from the days of slavery it was inevitable that times would get better for people of the black race.

    I know people will view these comments as racist but they are not. They are stating of facts and trying to let people know that all is not what people say. Today many people view Jack Kennedy as a great president too. He was not. He actually trailed Barry Goldwater in some polls taken weeks before he died as they were evaluating the 1964 election prospects.

    Dr. King made a difference but so many other black people did too. He made a great speech but did not follow many of the principles he preached. He was a man with flaws, warts and all.

    So remember him as a difference maker not as a God who should be put on a pedestal.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      Before you let yourself off the hook in being or not being a racist, you chose which facts to present. No man is without flaws, and the violence that occurred near or in the midst of the demonstrations King participated in was caused by the counter protests. The blacks did not turn hoses on the whites.

      Go ahead and tell the blacks who lived in the post Civil War era through the 1960s that “it was inevitable that times would get better for people of the black race.” Yeah, the first 100 years is always the toughest.

      As for whether King was a womanizer, I don’t know that, and you don’t either. It’s widely believed, but so are a lot of things.

      1. Steve Hufford

        Kent, Kent, Kent. Blacks participated in the riots. They were embolden by Dr. King. I say right in my commentary all men have flaws. It was not only inevitable but it was happening as things were better. You cannot force people to like each other. We get the mistaken impression in this country that people do not have the right to not like other people. That is not true. A white congress passed the civil rights act of 1964 and that would have been done with or without Dr. King. After Dr. King’s death there were not any leaders of his stature around (Jeese Jackson is a joke)but things continued to get better.

        As for the womanizing it is not a rumor but substantiated by surveillance reports of the FBI. Yes they invaded his privacy getting these reports but they were not released until years after his death.

        You stay on your soap box Ken pandering to the masses but the truth is far from what you think it is.

        The problem is that no one wants to say the truth because it will get you called a racist.

        You demean black people by making your sarcastic comments about the 1st 100 years being the hardest. Maybe it was actions like this that gets you fired.

        Have a good day Kent and when you decide to pull your head out of where ever it is stuck let me know. I can tell you how FDR did not end the depression but helped get us in to WW II which did end it.


        1. kentsterling Post author

          Agree on FDR and the depression. To think that paying men in the CCC to plant trees in western Michigan aided economic growth is nutty. TVA, WPA, etc…, was a nice way to give people something to do, but had nothing to do with the economy. Now, some of that work has created wealth subsequently, but the depression wasn’t ended because of it.

          I’ve heard that there were surveillance tapes, but I have never heard one, and know no one who has. They might exist, and King might have done what he has been accused of by many people who disagree with his beliefs.

          Your reading of the paragraph with your quote is flawed. It doesn’t demean black people. It demeans your lunkheaded assessment of King’s effect on advancing the cause of racial equality.

  2. Jeff Gregory

    Discrimination and racism is still alive and well in the USA. It is my job to investigate it and I find no shortage.

    I have been reading your dialogue with Steve with great amusement. There may have been violence surrounding some of the events in the King era, but it was the opposite of what King called for. There may not have been any big central figures after King, but there were MANY localized figures that carried out his message in communities around the country and even around the world. It is somewhat applicable, the King/God comparison. King was kind of the Jesus of the civil rights movement. Not is holiness or power, but as the figure who changed “time” and died for the cause. What central, powerful figure can come behind that?


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