Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Martin Luther King's Dream Seen in New Light


MANY young blacks these days regard Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a fully integrated, race-neutral society without enthusiasm.

Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech - much heard every year around his birthday - alone no longer captures nearly universal aspirations for blacks in America. Some reclaim their respect for King by looking beyond it for other directions in his thinking.

About these ads

"He stood for more than that," says Hakim Hilliard, chairman of the Black Law Students Association at Georgetown University Law Center.

At Georgetown, for example, black students marked King's birthday this week by sponsoring a talk comparing him with Malcolm X, a more radical black voice from the 1960s that has surged in popularity in recent years.

And the picture painted by the speaker, cultural historian Tony Browder, stresses less-familiar aspects of the King message - black self-determination and international solidarity.

The exclusive emphasis on King as a nonviolent integrationist is largely perpetuated by whites, he says.

"My own impression is that much of the young black population is ambivalent about Dr. King," says Milton Morris, vice president for research of the Joint Center for Policy Studies, a think tank centered on black concerns.

"If one were to give a speech today about Dr. King's dream, it wouldn't be greeted with much enthusiasm," he says. Ambivalence about integration

King was essentially an integrationist, says Dr. Morris, and "today's black youth is much more ambivalent about integration." Instead, concern runs higher about establishing black identity and respect for black culture on its own terms.

About these ads

Shelby Steele, a controversial black writer who opposes race-based policy and race-based views of culture, says that if King gave his famous speech today, "I think that would get King in the same kind of trouble I'm in. People would say, 'You're naive. Americans are racist and they'll always be racist."

King is still seen by young blacks as a modern hero, says Dr. Steele, who teaches English at California State University at San Jose, but different parts of King's message are stressed these days.

"There's more focus on Malcolm X, but there's some revisionism there too," he adds. The Black Muslim leader is revered as a black nationalist who fought back, although at the end of his life he was advocating a much more integrationist message of racial harmony, says Steele.

"I think we went through a period where we wouldn't have said we stood for the things King stood for," says Mr. Hilliard, the law student, describing shifting views among fellow blacks students in the past few years. "We identified more with what Malcolm X stood for."

He has come to see King in a different light, however, as he read more of his speeches. "The ultimate goal is to be able to exist in society on an equal basis," he says. Even if Malcolm X stressed building respect for black identity and King stressed inclusion in a mostly white society, says Hilliard, "the major leaders were essentially saying the same thing." No longer one voice

In the early 1960s, black aspirations for progress were clear. The only debate of consequence was over tactics: How far, how fast. King was on the leading edge.

Now, the picture is more fragmented, more complicated. "One of the characteristics of these times is that it is very difficult to find a leading edge, a direction, or a new front," says Morris.

Instead of a broad consensus among blacks over direction, there is a diverse flourishing of black conservatives, Democratic politicians from left wing to mainstream, academics promoting radical, Egypt-centered revisions of black history, and hard-line black separatists.

Somewhere in the middle are people such as Wayne Currie, a lawyer and developer in Prince George's County, Maryland. As a nine-year-old fourth-grader, he and his brothers were the first blacks to integrate the white public school in their neighborhood.

"Socially," he recalls, "it was bizarre. We didn't get invited to the birthday parties."

Mr. Currie says he is still motivated by King's ideals, but he is uncomfortable with the term integration.

"The connotation to me is covetousness of some superior position, rather than some kind of coequal alliance," he says.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.