“I Have a Dream” – 60 years after Martin Luther King Jr’s immortal speech

The ethics of race relations in America is one of shared destiny, not division.

Sixty years ago this month, on Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where over a quarter million people had gathered along the great reflecting pool to advance the cause of civil rights.

King began by paying tribute to President Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the midst of the Civil War 100 years earlier.

Though King had his doctorate in systematic theology, he understood the Black economy and purposefully employed analogies throughout his speech, invoking the “promissory note” of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and chastising America for not “honouring this sacred obligation” and giving “the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

In ethics, context matters greatly. Back then, a tense internal struggle between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King with the aim “to save the soul of America” through nonviolent resistance and racial integration faced intense opposition from Black nationalists like Malcolm X, who believed in using any means necessary including violence to advance their cause. Malcolm X saw the SCLC as “stooges” of the white establishment, believing that Black people must be self-reliant, embrace their African heritage, and separate from white culture, especially Protestant Christianity — WASPs — which had nationalized slavery.

Ethical leaders promote unity to overcome despair and isolation. King understood that the decades of injustice that Black people had endured were also tied to their isolation in the economic system. As a boy, King was “determined to hate every white person.”  However, his parents taught him to live his life as a Christian and sow love where there was hate.

So, on that hot August day, King cautioned the vast multitude before him that all these injustices “must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”


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What is the status of King’s Dream in 2023? Many will be discussing it on this anniversary. Here are six practical tips you can use to keep the Dream alive:

(1) Ethics is about character: King 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 colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!” Consider doing a daily character check. Ask yourself if the looks of people bias your view of them before you have a chance to really know them.

(2) Fierce urgency of now: In his speech, King said, “We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” Ethics means doing the good at the precise time it should be done. Is your work stuck in mindless gradualism. Or do you see wrongs that should be righted. Ethics deals with the here and now. Don’t wait. Do it now.

(3) Root out favouritism: Recently the US Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action in college admissions was unconstitutional. Soon after the decision, The Washington Post reported that “more Black Americans approve of the Supreme Court’s decision than disapprove. And few believe such policies have actually helped them.” A few weeks later, the views of many Black Americans were validated by a study revealing that our top universities for years had admission practices that clearly favoured legacy applicants from the top 1 percent of earners. Check your hiring practices for favouritism and nepotism. Reduce bias by conducting tandem interviews and organized checklists of competency and character items to assess all candidates regardless of colour or creed.

(4) Ethics requires service: In 1968, King said that what mattered most to him was that people would say “he tried to give his life serving others.” Your organization can serve in large and small ways.

(5) Address the structures that cause division: Ethics is strengthened by structures that promote healthy living. King’s adversaries attacked what they saw as destabilizing forces against the black family. Malcolm X railed against President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Great Society legislation seeing it not as liberating Black people but “enslaving them in economic and dietary white systems of domination and oppression.” Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, who as a boy had witnessed three lynchings, urged followers to jettison the “slave diet” of their former oppressors and adopt the dietary discipline of Islam.

Growing up in the 1960s to mid 70s, I saw a sliver of the Black economy. My maternal grandfather, Peter Pace, operated a butcher and grocery shop at 154 North Clinton Ave. here in the city of Rochester from the late 1920s until 1980. Grandpa had me retrieve from the large walk-in freezer all sorts of pigs’ feet, chicken necks, gizzards, and chitterlings (pigs’ intestines), the parts of the animal that nobody else usually bought except his Black patrons, who called it “soul food.” Often, I saw grandpa quietly refuse payment. Later I learned it had been “slave food,” which consisted of the animal scraps that white masters otherwise intended to throw out but permitted the slaves to eat. Consider supporting those organizations like Foodlink that seek to alleviate food insecurity.

(6) Our first Black president, Barack Obama, often lamented the lack of fathers in the home and the devastating impact on the development of children. If you are a dad, honour Dr. King by spending quality time with your kids. And if you can spare the time, consider becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister to a young person in need.

The Rev Dr Martin Luther King’s legacy is our shared destiny. Let’s honor him by continuing to pursue the Dream. 


Peter C. DeMarco is a long-time supporter and former board member of Elevate Rochester, and the author of the forthcoming book, The Good Will Leader. His company, Priority Thinking®, provides leadership coaching, organizational development and ethics education programs to leaders, businesses, health care groups, universities, and non-profits.


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