Mcternan on politics

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons
of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able
to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Forty years ago,
on 28 August 1963, Martin Luther King, speaking from the steps of
the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, made one of the most famous
and powerful speeches in American political history.

As with other great speeches its full impact was not anticipated by
its speaker. King spoke at the end of the lengthy rally and had
made his peroration – “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama,
go back to South CarolinaÉ” – when Mahalia Jackson, the famous
blues singer, reportedly urged him: “Tell them about your dream
Martin. Tell them about your dream.” He did, and he extemporised
what is probably the most memorable and inspiring vision of genuine
racial equality.

This anniversary provokes mainly melancholy reflections. Re-reading
this speech, and his others – particularly his final speech “I have
been to the mountain-top” – drives home just how much the US lost
when he was assassinated. A national holiday is no substitute for
missing 30 years of leadership. What would he have done in the
1970s and 1980s? As he moved from his commitment to non-violent
direct action towards more radical politics would he have met
Malcolm X on his journey from the Nation of Islam into more
mainstream politics? A united front between those two figures would
have transformed African-American politics and with it the
Democratic Party – but Malcolm X too was killed.

And what if those two had been able to work with Robert Kennedy –
for he was heading for the White House in 1968 when he too was
assassinated – what kind of America would have been built? No
Nixon; an early end to the Vietnam war; universal health care;
victory in LBJ’s war on poverty?

So many American dreams were destroyed in the violence of the late
1960s. But King, X and Kennedy have left a legacy. Not simply the
austere one that King expressed when he said “if a man hasn’t
discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live”. But
also the moral standards they articulated. “I have a dream that my
four little children will one day live in nation where they will
not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of
their character.” How many of us can say that we are contributing
to achieving that?

Yet finally, the riches we have been left are the dreams of a
different, better way of being in the world. As Edward Kennedy,
that other great, lost leader said: “The work goes on, the cause
endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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