A Dream Deferred?

by Derrick G. Jeter

Forty-five years ago this August the moral triumph of civil rights was announced when a young black preacher stood on the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial and declared a dream for America—a dream for his children and the children of white men and women. I wonder, if Martin Luther King Jr. had lived what he would think about his dream today. In light of the recent controversies swirling around the first African-American to make a serious run for the presidency and his pastor for twenty years who damned America instead of blessed her, what would Dr. King think?


But Dr. King didn’t live. This past April 4th marked the fortieth anniversary of his assassination. The evening before, on April 3, 1968, he gave his last speech. Tom Brokaw captures the scene well:


The night he arrived in Memphis, King wanted to skip a rally at a Masonic temple. He said he was too tired, but his aides . . . persuaded him to go, because the hall was already packed with the faithful.


Memphis was on edge. City officials worried that there would be violence, and death threats were a daily concern for Dr. King’s traveling band of organizers. That was the setting for what became Dr. King’s final speech. [1]


The speech was prophetic, especially the conclusion.


We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [2]


The following evening, while standing on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel, Dr. King was speaking to Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson, who were in the parking lot below, when a single shot rang out and killed him instantly.


That very same night, a white man was standing on a makeshift platform addressing a large black audience in Indianapolis, Indiana. The crowd was unaware that Dr. King had died just a few hours before. It fell to Robert F. Kennedy to deliver the news, which sent a shockwave through the audience. The night was dark. Illuminated only by the lights of news cameras, Kennedy spoke extemporaneously with a calm intensity.


In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black . . . you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization—black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.


Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.


For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.


My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” . . .


Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. [3]


Two months later, the savageness of man cut down Bobby Kennedy in Los Angels.


As we mark the anniversaries of that turbulent time in 1968, it is well worth asking: is King’s dream deferred? I wonder what he would say, if he were alive today.



[1] Tom Brokaw, Boom! Voices of the Sixties: Personal Reflections on the ’60s and Today (New York: Random House, 2007), 58–59.

[2] Martin Luther King Jr., in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), 286.

[3] Robert F. Kennedy, “Statement on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” http://www.rfkmemorial.org/lifevision/assassinationofmartinlutherkingjr/, accessed 6 April 2008.