Apart from teaching history at Stanford University, A.B. Assensoh also previously served as the institution's Director of Research and Associate Editor of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. This week, as America and the world celebrates Dr. King's 76th birthday and the 10th federal holiday declared in Dr. Kin's honor, the Indiana University Professor shares with us the text of a King Week lecture that he is giving today at Indiana University. Among his published books is Martin Luther King, Jr. and America's Quest for Racial Integration (1986; 1987).
"Martin Luther King, Jr.: Has His Dream Been Fulfilled or Deferred?"
-- a speech scheduled for delivery by A.B. Assensoh, Professor & Director of Graduate Studies and Admissions of the IU African American and African Diaspora Studies (AAADS) Department at 6-7:30 P.M. in the IU Main Library Showing Room E174 on Thursday, January 20, 2005 as part of Indiana University's King Week observances organized by the IU Libraries Diversity Committee Speaker's Program
Good evening, students; colleagues; friends; ladies and gentlemen:
Very often, I say to friends and several of my students that I prefer to sit in a corner somewhere and write an essay, a newspaper column or a book that can be read by many people. However, whenever I am asked to speak about a hero like the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., I accept the invitation with no hesitation. You may wonder why I very happily or readily accept such invitations? The main reason is that, as a King scholar, I have had the privilege, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in serving as the Director of Research and Associate Editor of the Stanford University-based Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. In that capacity, I was also privileged to work very closely with all members of Dr. King's immediate family in Atlanta, led by Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Dr. King's sister, Mrs. Christine King Farris. Before accepting the Stanford University position, one of my published books was about Dr. King and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, a publication that was well received and used on many campuses. Based on these experiences, I can easily say that I have something worthwhile to share with an audience when it comes to Kingian Scholarship.
My task for tonight, ladies and gentlemen, is to take some moments to talk with you about the extent to which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream has either been deferred or fulfilled. As I inch toward that obligation, I also wish to thank Ms. Delice Holliday and the IUB Libraries Diversity Committee Speakers Committee for the invitation to be part of its 2005 speakers program.
In terms of our topic about Dr. King's Dream, it is first and foremost very important to discuss what aspect of the dream that I plan to discuss this evening and, in the end, if necessary about which I may answer some questions from the audience. That is because Dr. King was a visionary, whose dreams for America encompassed more than the 1963 speech that he delivered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. Indeed, it is often very tempting to fall in love with the ideas and issues that Dr. King addressed in the 1963 speech because they are very importantly and thematically about Blacks and Whites being able to live together in brotherhood and peace. Before the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, such ideas were considered in revolutionary terms, especially during the years of Black enslavement when all Blacks -- from the African continent to the diaspora -- were considered to be either sub-human or chattels. Therefore, the common wisdom was that Blacks were also incapable of living together with Whites in any sustained sense of the beloved community. In the Moynihan Report of the 1960s, for example, Blacks were deemed inherently inferior. Yet, Dr. King dreamed and many Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds worked very hard to bring some aspects of his idea of the beloved community into reality.
In terms of Dr. King's clarion calls for Blacks and Whites to sit together and break bread, that noble notion had been echoed in the 1920s by another Black hero from Africa, whose name was Dr. James E.K. Aggrey. To Dr. Aggrey, a graduate of Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, the harmonization and cooperation of Blacks and Whites are similar to what happens when one plays the piano. This African educator underscored that hitting on black notes on the piano can produce some music, and that it is likewise in hitting on the white notes. However, for a true musical harmony, a pianist has to hit on the black and white keys together!
However, too much has already been said about the unity and cooperative aspects of Dr. King's dream. In fact, I would dare to guess that many of us in this room tonight can very easily recite important parts of Dr. King's dream speech because we have heard it so many times and in so many different venues. Consequently, in my time with you tonight, I wish to beg your indulgence so that I can redirect our attention to another aspect of Dr. King's dream: that is about his vision for economic justice for all men and women as well as for world peace, the noble objectives that summed up the main reasons for the Nobel Peace Prize that Dr. King received in Oslo, Norway on December 10, 1964. When it comes to Dr. King's vision for economic justice and world peace, the "I Have a Dream" speech is essential, but an objective observer of his life has to look beyond that speech.
For example, on April 3, 1968 -- barely 24 hours before he was assassinated -- Dr. King delivered this extremely important speech at the Memphis Masonic Temple in Tennessee. It is the often ignored speech, which is titled: "I've Been to the Mountaintop". In that speech, Dr. King urged Americans and the American government to go beyond a focus on the basic idea of integration and embrace the much more important quest for economic justice. Figuratively, Dr. King described the economic justice as well as the tranquility that he wanted to see as "the mountain top." He lamented that April 3rd day, indeed a day before his assassination in Memphis, that economic justice was like a "mountain top" that he thanked God, in whom he believed, that he had seen, looked over and also seen the promised land lying there clearly. Yet, he underscored: "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that, we as a people, will get to the promised landŠ"
Indeed, for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., economic justice meant more than equality for Blacks in America but for poor people all over the world. As a continental African, it is extremely important to mention that Dr. King knew about the plight of the poor in African villages, hamlets, towns and cities, just as he also knew about the poverty that men, women and children had been riddled with in his own America as well as in Asia, the Middle East and in the Pacific. For, when Dr. King had the opportunity to travel outside the United States, the first place he visited in March 1957 was Ghana, to attend the West African country's independence celebrations on March 6, 1957; he was accompanied by Mrs. Coretta Scott King. From Ghana, he visited Nigeria; then in 1957 -- Dr. King, accompanied by Mrs. King and the historian Lawrence Dunbar Reddick - visited India, after which hew wrote eloquently about that trip in Ebony Magazine and titled it, "My Trip to the Land of Gandhi." On all those trips, Dr. King spoke about economic justice and world peace, events that would culminate in the Nobel Peace Prize that he received.
It is very important to point out that after his fight for civil and human rights in and outside America, Dr. King very forcefully turned his attention to economic exigencies and needs of his fellow human beings, especially in case of the down-trodden and the abjectly poor, hence he established the "Operation Bread Basket" project within his movement, and subsequently appointed the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., to head it. Apart from his call for economic justice, Dr. King also spoke against urban poverty and, where hunger was concerned, he also forcefully spoke against the Vietnam war as a tragic diversion of resources from his war on poverty. Someone may wonder if Dr. King truly fought for the poor and the downtrodden. Yes, he did because the very week he was assassinated in April 1968, he was in Memphis in support of a strike by African American sanitation workers. At the time, plans were way ahead for the "Poor People's Campaign", the inter-racial march that he was to lead in Washington, D.C. to demand economic justice.
Also, Dr. King called insistently for a color-blind society, a society where he expected his four children and all God's children to be judged by the content of their characters but not the color of their skin. He, indeed, wanted to see a society in which accents, religion, gender and, above all, race would not matter. Have we attained any of these measures? If not, then can we safely say that part of Dr. King's dream has been deferred? Is it not a fact that racism and racial inequality still persist in the 21st century America and around the world? Does society not still have very subtle and, sometimes, transparent forms of racism in education, employment, housing and criminal justice. Many Americans, particularly minorities, still experience residential segregation, school segregation, infant mortality due to lack of resources for pregnant and nursing mothers; lack of health-care coverage, with varied gaps in life expectancies of minorities and others, while there are very substantial racial disparities remaining in such core economic indicators as income, wealth, poverty and unemployment.
Consequently, if Dr. King were still alive and celebrating his 76th birthday this week, he would still be speaking against wanton destruction of innocent lives in various wars throughout the world; he would also make clarion calls against institutional racism. Although "Whites Only" signs are gone, there would be the need for him to remind us that American educational institutions, courts and economic markets are still infected by racial injustice. Also, Dr. King would have noted that it is still a fact that many of U.S. minorities, especially women, are denied equal pay for equal work. Therefore, if Dr. King were in our midst today, he would feel very sad that part of his dream has been deferred, which should remind us of what Langston Hughes eloquently penned in his "Dream Deferred" poem: that any dream deferred cannot be helpful! However, as a consolation, Dr. King would have still reminded us of an important statement that he made in 1967, in which Dr. King urged all of us, and I quote to end this presentation: "Don't allow anybody to make you feel that you're nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance." Thank you.