- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

We are more than halfway into ABC News anchor Peter Jenning’s excellent documentary on Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech when we hear comedian-activist Dick Gregory get to the real reason why millions of people watched the address on television. Many feared there was going to be “trouble.”

“And why did white folks look at it?” he asks. “Not because they wanted to hear what niggas had to say. They thought it was going to be a bloodbath. They thought it was going to be violence and so they listened all the way to the end.”

No, as Mr. Gregory says, the networks probably would not have gotten much of an audience if they simply announced that “we have a very eloquent Negro who’s going to give a very eloquent speech; we want you to listen.”

But, people were nervous. Wednesday, Aug. 28, fell at the end of a hot, steamy summer of racial tensions. Major league baseball was cancelled. The National Guard was put on alert. The White House prepared an executive order to declare martial law, if necessary.

The District of Columbia even ordered bars and liquor stores closed on the eve of Mr. King’s march on Washington. “No firewater for the Indians tomorrow,” joked Malcolm X, according to “The Dream: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation” (Ecco Press), a new book by lawyer Drew Hansen.

All three networks covered the march live. I was a high schooler in southern Ohio without a huge interest in world events, but I watched every minute of this one. Racial segregation was still legal, South and North. My parents could not take me to certain amusement parks, hotels or restaurants. When we traveled far, we slept in our car. The only difference for us in the North was that we could ride in the front of the bus and we didn’t have “white” and “colored” signs.

And the system of racial terror could not hold down blacks without also holding down whites, like young TV news reporter Peter Jennings.

“I remember my cameraman and I getting chased out of Natchez, Miss.,” Mr. Jennings told me in a telephone interview. “I guess I had forgotten just how frightened people were and how, if you were attacked, law enforcement simply would not intervene.”

Yet, as his documentary (scheduled to be broadcast on ABC-TV at 10 p.m. ET Thursday, Aug. 28, the 40th anniversary of the speech) vividly recounts, even the TV images of dogs and fire hoses unleashed against black schoolchildren demonstrating for civil rights in Birmingham did not move Washington and the public to action the way Mr. King’s speech did.

Yet, the speech might not have been nearly as memorable had Mr. King stuck to his prepared text. In his text, he drew powerful connections to Lincoln and the nation’s founders, he spoke not of a dream but of a debt, a “promissory note” issued by “the architects of our republic” in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

“It is obvious today,” he intoned, “that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

It was in the second half of the speech that Mr. King offered a vision of a better America energized by freedom, justice and equality, riffs that he had road-tested thoroughly in Detroit and other cities in previous weeks.

And it is Mr. King’s vision of a better society that Americans and the world remembers today far more widely than they remember the sense of debt and “obligation” that he referred to in the early part of his speech. Everybody, it seems, would like to see a free, just and equalized society. We only argue about how to get there.

That tendency leads some people to speak of ways to achieve Mr. King’s dream that run precisely counter to what he actually wanted. The fight for “color-blindedness” should not make us blind to reality.

In California, for example, the same ballot that famously offers a recall of the governor also offers an initiative that would outlaw the collection by the state of racial data. Its main sponsor, Ward Connerly, a state university regent and anti-affirmative action crusader, says the new initiative actually will help achieve Mr. King’s dream by making the state color blind. Ah, if only it were that easy.

In fact, Mr. King believed that Americans would have to be quite color-conscious in order to achieve his dream. Otherwise we would have no way to measure our progress.

Yes, I know. Measuring our progress through racial “bean counting,” as Mr. Connerly calls it, annoys some people. But it is better than waiting for a riot.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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