Rich Paxson

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an African-American man, aimed his ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ speech at poor, marginalized African-Americans in 1960s America. However, King was speaking to individuals from all races who the dominant, capitalist, socio-economic system had excluded from so many of its benefits.

King’s speech directly challenged white Americans’ understanding of the meaning of freedom that developed early in the nation’s history as a status opposite to that of enslaved African persons, according to Greg Grandin in his book “The Empire of Necessity.” Whites in America were free and, blacks were either chattel slaves or, after the Civil War, economically enslaved persons.

In his “I Have a Dream Speech”, Dr. King conflated the symbols of freedom and liberty in the patriotic song, ‘My County ‘Tis of Thee,’ with icons of southern slavery and white oppression. ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ was no ordinary song but one that many primary students sang each morning to begin their school day. When in his speech King said: “… let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia” and “… let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee” he interjected Confederate slavery symbols into verse from the song to challenge white American ideas of individual liberty and privilege.

While King spoke about the socio-economic emancipation of African-Americans, his message was one of atonement. King recognized that God’s vision of reconciliation among all peoples was, and is, needed in America and only with God’s help can humanity actualize that dream of reconciliation.