Yesterday my daughter Lydia (7) asked me why she didn't have to go to school on Monday. I started with the "I Have a Dream Speech," but then found myself tracking back through Birmingham, then Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, then segregation after the Civil War, then the Civil War, then Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, and then I found myself explaining how Europeans sailed to the coasts of Africa, walked into people's homes, dragged them away from their families, and chained them on their backs in the dark sweaty bellies of ships where they writhed for months with little food or water only to be sold into slavery.
It was a depressing conversation, and I caught myself wondering, naively, how it could have happened like that, how many demonic decisions had to be made by so-called Christians to get to King's assassination in Memphis in 1968.
We study the "I Have a Dream" speech often in first-year writing and courses on rhetorical criticism. It's a fantastic speech, and students are unfortunately so acclimated to the acclamation of the speech that conversations about it rarely yield insights beyond the obvious. His histrionic delivery has not lost its savor over the last 60 years. The improv parts at the end are the most justifiably famous. Few of us, if asked, would think first to praise the check-cashing analogy, which cheapens (I think) the power of the Declaration's self-evident truths. The bank of justice does not write checks. It's not the most resonant analogy. (Do you disagree?)
The "dream" section, though, is so powerful. It rings with optimism in the work-in-progress that we call the American soul. King was pragmatic about the consequences of postponing racial justice, but he also had a prophet's foolish hope in the eventual redemption of the nation. We may never live in a post-racial nation, but with each generation we can at least hope we are advancing in recognizing the inalienable divine value of everyone. "No exceptions," as the bumper sticker goes.