I Can Never Live in Their Skin: Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech”

[All designs by the talented Jeremy Grant]

As white people, I believe that our temptation on Martin Luther King, Jr. day is to assume that he and his peaceful protesters defeated racism. After all, why else would he be honored with a national holiday if he hadn’t won the war? Haven’t people of color received the right to vote, been given equal economic advantage, and been accepted as integral members of American society? Don’t black Americans star in their own TV shows now?

But in the midst of our current climate of upheaval, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech is worth another look.

I’m also willing to bet that revisiting it will make you uncomfortable, as it did for me. (Particularly if you’re a white American.)

As a liberal white Christian  woman, I like to put myself on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s side. I like to claim his victory as mine, assuming that I, like MLK, Jr., am on the side of the just, that I am on the side of peace, that I am on the side of my American brothers and sisters of color.

But just as I cannot travel back in time to protest with MLK, Jr. and other Americans during the race riots of the 1960s, so too I can never fully imagine or live in their suffering.

I can learn; I can listen; I can repent; and I can even suffer myself for standing beside them.


The exact nature of their suffering will forever remain opaque to me.

(The irony is that these feelings are the proof that my theory is bogus: by claiming any sort of black struggle or victory as my own, I am committing an insidious form of white imperialism and oppression, and I am enacting my own white privilege – which are particularly slippery demons to face and uproot. I’m working on it though. :-))

Further, I see in myself the desire to call racism a past reality, swallowing the “post-racial America” narrative whole.

(Of course, this narrative was espoused with more fervor after the election of President Barak Obama and has been disproved by the most recent election cycle, which some are saying could be a backlash to the eight-year term of our first black President.)

Imagining that I live in a post-racial America acquits me of any responsibility for the current problems among minority and majority groups in the US. It gives me permission to wave a foam finger from the sidelines, chowing down on peanuts and hot dogs while minority Americans, who don’t have the choice to disengage, are left to fight the most violent racists among us.

If we as white Americans truly care about racial justice, we will engage in the fight and use our voices, time, and resources to support the most vulnerable among us however we can.

Perhaps you heard MLK, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech in grade school, or perhaps you might only be familiar with the memorable “I have a dream” cadence from pop culture.

But when I returned to it today, it caused me to pause and ask myself, were Martin Luther King, Jr.’s goals truly accomplished?

Does our nation look like the nation of his dreams?

You be the judge.

(Note: I have excerpted portions of the speech that felt particularly relevant to me. However, I’d recommend listening to the entire audio and reading the transcript here).

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”

Delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC,

on August 28, 1963

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

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.

…We have come to this 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.

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 quicksands 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 [the year this speech was delivered] 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.

… 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…

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ (Amos 5:24)

… I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’ (Isaiah 40:4-5)

…With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that

we will be free one day.”



About Liz Grant

Published author. Married to an artist. Two kids. Lives in a brick house in Denver, Colorado. Follower of Jesus. Find me on Instagram @elizcharlottegrant.

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