A Dream Deferred: Examining King’s Speech in Wake of George Floyd’s Death


On August 28th 1963, Martin Luther King stepped onto a podium in front of 250,000 people and begin to speak. The speech he delivered would eventually go down in history as one of the greatest examples of American rhetoric that has ever been composed.  Nearly midway through his speech, King was prompted by Mahalia Jackson to “tell them about the dream, Martin”. In that moment King’s words transformed from a speech into a sermon and he shifted from professor to prophet.  King slid his prepared speech to the side and delivered the words that would engrave his name on the walls of history.  

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all mean are created equal.”

King’s repeated refrain of “I have a dream” became synonymous with the speech that was originally entitled “Normalcy, Never Again”. However, King’s impromptu sermonic has overshadowed the rest of the speech, which has much to offer. When juxtaposed with current events, the other portions of King’s speech are just as relevant today as they were in 1963.

In the third paragraph of the speech, King says these words:

“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”- Martin Luther King, 1963

Contrary to popular opinion, the United States is still widely segregated. For example, a report released by UCLA, entitled Brown at 60, found that Black and Latino students still face widespread segregation in schools. “Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, while white and Asian students typically attend middle class schools.” Furthermore, the report found that segregation is more serious in large metropolitan areas and the states of New York, Illinois, and California were the worst for segregating black students. 

In 2018, the Washington Post conducted a study which examined census data from 1990, 2000, 2010, and estimates from 2016. The article found that the country has become more diverse but African Americans still face “persistent and deep segregation.” In cities like Detroit and Chicago neighborhoods have remained largely segregated. The article states that “decades of scholarship point to three main reasons for persistent segregation: money, preferences and discrimination.” This persistent segregation has implication on “educational quality and occupational opportunity” according to sociologist Kyle Crowder of University of Washington.

“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”- Martin Luther King, 1963

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest — quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.” Martin Luther King, 1963

In the speech King twice mentions police brutality. Nearly 60 years after King’s speech, police brutality against African Americans is the most pressing issue of the day. Niall McCarthy, a data journalist with Forbes, examined data from the Washington Post’s Fatal Force study and found that “since January 01, 2015, 4,728 people have died in police shootings and around half, 2,385, were white. 1,252 were black, 877 were Hispanic and 214 were from other racial groups. As a share of the population, however, things are very different. Black Americans account for less than 13% of the U.S. population but the rate at which they are shot and killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans.”

A Multi-Level Bayesian Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-Level in the United States, 2011–2014 conducted by Cody T. Ross of the University of California found “evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being {black, unarmed, and shot by police} is about 3.49 times the probability of being {white, unarmed, and shot by police} on average.” The report also found that “there is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” 

The Department of Justice conducted an investigation into the Ferguson Police Department after the death of Mike Brown and found “officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on “productivity,” meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” The report also found that “African Americans experience the harms of the disparities identified below as part of a comprehensive municipal justice system that, at each juncture, enforces the law more harshly against black people than others. The disparate impact of Ferguson’s enforcement actions is compounding: at each point in the enforcement process there is a higher likelihood that an African American will be subjected to harsher treatment; accordingly, as the adverse consequences imposed by Ferguson grow more and more severe, those consequences are imposed more and more disproportionately against African Americans.”

In 2011 the Department of Justice released a report on the New Orleans Police Department that found similar racial discrimination. “Indeed, the limited arrest data that the Department collects points to racial disparities in arrests of whites and African Americans in virtually all categories, with particularly dramatic disparity for African-American youth under the age of 17. Arrest data provided by NOPD indicates that in 2009, the Department arrested 500 African-American males and eight white males under the age of 17 for serious offenses, which range from homicide to larceny over fifty dollars. During this same period the Department arrested 65 African-American females and one white female in this same age group. Adjusting for population, these figures mean that the ratio of arrest rates for both African-American males to white males, and African-American females to white females, was nearly 16 to 1. Although a significant disparity in arrest rates for this age group exists nationwide, it is not nearly as extreme as the disparity found in New Orleans.” This report resulted in the New Orleans Police Department being placed under a consent decree. A consent decree is issued by the government to make a police department comply with the law. 

In the midst of the civil unrest and the continued quest for justice, equality, and liberty these words by King may be the most relevant: 

“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” Martin Luther King, 1963

Help Keep Big Easy Magazine Alive

Hey guys!

Covid-19 is challenging the way we conduct business. As small businesses suffer economic losses, they aren’t able to spend money advertising.

Please donate today to help us sustain local independent journalism and allow us to continue to offer subscription-free coverage of progressive issues.

Thank you,
Scott Ploof
Big Easy Magazine

Share this Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *