Thursday, September 30, 2021

Rev. MLK Jr: Beyond “I Have a Dream”


By Kathleen McQuillen, Anti-Racism Task Force Member, First United Methodist Church, Des Moines, IA.  Reprinted with permission; first published in The Light, First Church newsletter, June 2021

Is there (anyone) who is not familiar with Rev. Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech? Just to refresh your memory, “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.” 

Does anyone find fault with that statement? I would guess not.  Thus begins the great sanitizing of MLK and his revolutionary message of justice, inclusion, equality, and peace. Dr. Russell Rickford, Associate Professor of history at Cornell University makes the case expressed by numerous historians that King has been tamed and mythologized “to preserve the status quo, to mislead, and to pacify.” It helps keep King locked in the civil rights box and ignores his work to end war and expand economic rights. It keeps him locked in the pacifist box and keeps white Americans comfortable. It’s so easy to point to the sanitized King as the only appropriate model of resistance and protest.

But there is so much more to King’s message and work

Several years ago I walked across a bridge linking the US and Mexico. The walk south into Mexicowas uneventful. The walk back was a startling collection of sights, sounds, and emotions. There werechildren as young as 2 years old with their mothers, lining the bridge asking for change. The children were singing and dancing; and infants were wrapped tightly in blankets and laid against the curbs while the family begged for money to simply feed, clothe or shelter the family. Somewhere out of the recesses of my memory the words of Rev. King came to me and played over and over as I crossed the bridge. They’ve stayed with me since: “One day we must come to see the whole Jericho roadmust be transformed so that men and women are not constantly beaten and robbed as they make their way on life’s journey. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar…It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring…” (

Such messages began to make white establishment Americans nervous. They wanted Dr. King only in the civil rights box. But he wasn’t to be boxed in his lifetime. He spent the last years of his life organizing the Poor Peoples Campaign and the Great March on Washington. Though Dr. King was assassinated before the march was carried out, the march and campaign went forward with poor from all over the country gathering in DC in the summer of 1968. A protest camp of 3000 people took over the Washington Mall, held their space and issued their demands for six weeks. In the decades since the wealth gap between the “haves” and “have nots” has exploded and a new Poor Peoples Campaign is taking root around the US.

In 1967, one year to the day before his death, Rev. King broke with his own allies to make a speech condemning the war in Vietnam. People were angry and wanted him to stick to only the civil rights struggle. Making clear that the struggles are not separate struggles, King told an overflowing crowd at Riverside Church in New York City: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government…” Grieved by the impact of the war on US cities, on the poverty work, on the victims of war in US and Vietnam, Rev. King came to the conclusion that “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.”

Rev. King was so much more than his I have a dream speech. If we can learn his message, even today, perhaps we can understand and connect with the young people driving the Black Lives Matter movement in our communities. Perhaps we can actually become allies and put our words and actions toward building that “Beloved community” of economic justice, inclusion, and peace for which Rev. King gave his life.

Kathleen McQuillen is with MFSA (Methodist Federation for Social Action) and founded MEPEC (Middle East Peace Education Coalition), resides in Des Moines, and is otherwise active in leadership in the peace community in Des Moines.

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