The Dream Today

An NRO Symposium
Fifty years after the March on Washington

National Review Online asked a panel of distinguished commenters to assess where Dr. King’s dream stands, 50 years after his historic speech.


Anthony Bradley

Fifty years ago, Dr. King provided America with a provocative vision, in which our republic would become a place of greater political and economic liberty for African Americans. However, in 2013, when we examine the black underclass in cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., we can see how the politics of progressivism singlehandedly turned King’s dream into a nightmare.

For example, low-income black families were obliterated by welfare programs that emerged out of the Johnson administration’s failed “War on Poverty.” Welfare destroyed the incentives for men to marry and care for their children, remain employed, and save money for the long term. Today, as a result of progressivist social visions, only about 26 percent of black women marry, compared with 51 percent for white women. In 1950, 64 percent of African American women married, compared with 67 percent for white women. Without flourishing families, low-income blacks were doomed to government dependency and cyclical poverty.

Dr. King and I share the same dream: African Americans should experience more liberty instead of less. However, if America wants to see King’s dream come to life in the 21st century, we will need to abandon progressivism’s redesign of the family, the mythology that governments are best at running economies, and the failed notion that increasing public funding of failing public schools helps children.

Black America needs freedom from the surrogate decision-making of progressive government bureaucrats who write policies that undermine moral virtues and treat people differently according to the color of their skin. Only if that freedom is established can the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness be fulfilled for all in America, regardless of race or class.

 Anthony B. Bradley is an associate professor of theology and ethics at The King’s College and a research fellow at the Acton Institute.


Roger Clegg

Today, Martin Luther King Jr. might reflect as follows:

My fellow Americans, since I spoke to you last, we have seen America become increasingly a multiracial and multiethnic country. Over one in four Americans now say they are something other than simply “white.” Blacks are no longer the largest minority group: Latinos are.

And blacks and whites are the slowest growing populations. Since the last census, the Latino population has grown by 43 percent, and the Asian population has grown by 43 percent as well. What’s more, the number of Americans who identify themselves as belonging to “two or more races” has grown by 32 percent.

In such a nation, the principle of E pluribus unum becomes critical in two ways — one having to do with the color of our skin, and the other having to do with the content of our character.

First, we cannot have a legal regime in which government agencies, our great universities, and our other institutions sort people according to skin color and what country their ancestors came from, and treat some better and others worse depending on which silly little box they check.

Second, the character we as fellow citizens have in common must be cultivated and celebrated more than our “diversity.” 

Character is cultivated first and foremost by family. As a Negro and a Christian minister, it saddens me to see that today more than 7 out of 10 African Americans are born out of wedlock, along with more than 6 out of 10 Native Americans, and more than 5 out of 10 Hispanics — versus fewer than 3 out of 10 whites and fewer than 2 out of 10 Asians and Pacific Islanders. That is too high for all groups, but who can fail to see the connection between these numbers and how each group is doing? 

It breaks my heart to see so many children being raised without a father.

 Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity. 


Grant Collins

I think Martin Luther King Jr., were he alive today, might say:

Personal responsibility is the launching pad for success. All persons control their own destiny. Each person has dignity, and a measure of destiny within: When people hold fast to their ideals, their circumstances (such as race, gender, and class) are but the proving grounds of their gifts. Greatness is attainable, and each person has a unique destiny.

I see the greatness in everyone, and the unfortunate struggle and toil based on a small view of one’s self and of God. Much work needs to be done. Are parents setting an example for their children, on a daily basis? Are teachers facilitating greatness among their students? Do our institutions and their leaders focus on investing in the growth and development of their work force? Do our political leaders edify with their words and actions?

It is difficult to say yes, on the broadest social scale; but locally, within communities, in a home here and there, in a particular classroom, yes, those leaders are present. They meet at the dinner table, they volunteer with a kind word, they work, and they are beacons of peace and joy.

 Grant E. Collins II served as deputy director of the Office of Family Assistance at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Derek Grier

A great portion of Dr. King’s speech is a blueprint for what he hoped America’s future would hold for its children. The dream that one day his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” is one of the most memorable and repeated lines of the speech. In 1963, Dr. King refused to believe that there were “insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity.” These 50 years later, I am convinced that we have made substantial progress in extending economic and political freedom to all Americans. However, the success that we have seen in these areas is not so great that we can indulge in what Dr. King described as the “luxury of cooling off.” I’m the father of two teenaged African-American boys, and my dream for America’s future cannot be fulfilled as long as the African-American high-school dropout rate, unemployment rate, crime rate, abortion rate, and out-of-wedlock-birth rate continue to outpace the national average. We have come a long way but we still have some mileage left in our journey toward King’s vision of an oasis of freedom and justice.

 Derek Grier is senior pastor of Grace Church in Dumfries, Va.

Jerome Hudson

There was a distinct difference between the speech delivered by Dr. King 50 years ago and the one made by his son last Saturday.

The elder King brought the crowd to tears of joy with the hope of increased equality and opportunity — a dream fulfilled. The son sought to bring about tears of self-pity and anger over things that are allegedly owed to the people in the crowd.

America is not fully equal, nor will it ever be. But it certainly is not the society of segregation and institutional racism that it was five decades ago. There will always be bias, but those who practice it openly are scorned and those who attempt to institutionalize it are prosecuted.

And there’s even more work to be done. Dr. King dreamed that his children could “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin” — yet we have immortalized racial preferences.

Dr. King was pro-family, yet those who claim his legacy promote a welfare system that incentivizes fatherlessness.

Dr. King decried a racism that could strip a black child of his “self-hood.” Yet, today, a black baby is five times more likely to be aborted than a white baby.

Dr. King didn’t die for this. It’s terribly inconsistent with his dream, and it impedes true progress.

Dr. King would be proud of America’s racial progress but would encourage us to march on. He would certainly be proud of his niece Alveda King, who said, “As brothers and sisters, united by one blood, in one single race . . . we are called to love each other.” Most Americans agree with her.

We still have a long way to go. My hope is that, 50 years from now, we’ll all be closer to the mountaintop.

 Jerome Hudson is a member of Project 21, a black-conservative leadership network.

Kay James

Today we  celebrate the 50th anniversary not just of a peaceful march and a beautiful speech, but of a dream given body and voice by a people united in their pursuit of liberty. 

Having spent much of my working life in the government, I am asked how that dream looks today, how much has been fulfilled, and how much more we have left to go. The plain and sad truth is that much of the condition of our people today is worse than when Dr. King died. Some things have improved, but I am truly dismayed that the cultural and educational disparities between whites and blacks have increased at such an alarming rate. Why are so many of our nation’s underperforming schools found in black neighborhoods? Why is our picture of a strong family much more often a white one than a black one? Why have our children left our homes and schools for the violence and mayhem of the streets?

No one who has been paying attention to the world outside his own home can say that the dream has been realized. The work of closing these gaps must be done through government, yes, but also through our own discipline.

The portion of Dr. King’s speech to which I have always looked for encouragement comes right in the middle: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” Dr. King did not expect his people to sit back and wait for the government to grant us all the rights and liberties we deserve. He exhorted us all to continue to work for that dream until it is fully realized, and to work with discipline. That message has been lost to us, and with that message our best hope for a brighter future.

On this anniversary, we must remember not just a great speech and a great man, but the dream we all shared, the faith we had in one day seeing it fulfilled, and the way we were shown to get there.

 Kay James is the founder and president of the Gloucester Institute and a former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Paul Moreno

The 1963 March on Washington was a turning point in the civil-rights movement, and in a significant sense a movement away from the civil-rights movement. The march was formally called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The jobs part is usually overlooked, but was really a demand for something more than civil rights as traditionally understood.

Most Americans in 1963 understood “civil rights” to mean the right to equal opportunity for individuals, regardless of race. The “jobs” demand was for an entitlement to equal economic outcomes for racial groups, using race when necessary. Freedom or civil rights would be secured by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but even these acts were quickly transformed into something more, known as “affirmative action.”

The March on Washington was a racially focused extension of 20th-century liberalism’s transformation of the idea of rights. Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed this in his 1944 message to Congress, when he said that “our rights to life and liberty” had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” He talked about new, self-evident, economic truths — “a second Bill of Rights.” This bill of rights included the right to a job, the right to food and recreation, the right to adequate farm prices, the right to a decent home, the right to medical care, and the right to a good education.

Of course, these are not “rights” at all — not in the sense that the framers and ratifiers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution used the term — but entitlements. From the Founding until the 20th century, the American regime assumed that government’s purpose was to secure pre-existing natural rights, such as life, liberty, property, or association. Everyone can exercise such rights simultaneously; nobody’s exercise of his own rights limits anyone else’s similar exercise. Your right to life or to work or to vote does not take anything away from anyone else. We can all pursue happiness at once. Entitlements, on the other hand, require someone else to provide me with the substantive good that the exercise of rights pursues. The right to work, for example, is fundamentally different from the right (entitlement) to a job; the right to marry does not entitle me to a spouse; the right to free speech does not entitle me to an audience.

As A. Philip Randolph, director of the March on Washington, put it, “Now we know that real freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions.”

 Paul Moreno is dean of faculty at Hillsdale College.

Dean Nelson

During the past 50 years of American history, much has been gained and much has been lost. I rejoice in the end of the segregationist practices Dr. King and many others fought so valiantly, and in the tremendous increase in opportunity for all Americans, regardless of race or gender. But sadly, greater opportunity for African Americans has not necessarily been associated with greater dignity and self-reliance. While some in our community have achieved tremendous success — rising to the top of every imaginable industry — a large segment has become mired in a web of failing schools and the perverse incentives that govern various forms of public assistance.

My dream is that Americans of all races would restore the strength of our families and our institutions of faith, and in doing so, rebuild our communities. I dream that Americans of all races would reject government interference in entrepreneurial initiative and encroachment on the God-ordained authority of the family. While Dr. King had higher hopes for the positive effects of government intervention than I, he would have certainly agreed that it should never trespass on the mission of the Church. And he would have surely shared the vision of the prophet Jeremiah: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:5-7).

 Dean Nelson is chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation. The Coalition of African American Pastors (CAAP) will be hosting its Eighth Annual Leadership Conference with the Frederick Douglass Foundation on October 8-11, 2013, at the Heritage Foundation.

Nathan Schlueter

Two score and ten years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. electrified America with his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the Lincoln Memorial one century after Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. One reason for the immediate, and enduring, success of the speech is the way that King wrapped his call for action within a fundamentally conservative idiom, drawing upon the deepest elements of American identity: Sacred Scripture, patriotic songs, history, geography, and above all the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which King quotes more often in his speeches and writings than any other text except the Bible.

This is especially true of King’s Dream itself, which was not intended to be an idiosyncratic fantasy but rather an evocative expression of the fundamental principles of the American political order. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” King said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Unfortunately, King’s conservative Dream has been hijacked by the Left to promote causes King never would have dreamed of supporting, including the legal rights to abortion and same-sex “marriage.” King rightly saw that the principles of the Declaration of Independence are rooted in “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” and not in the repudiation of Nature and God for the sake of radical autonomy and equality. In severing the essential link in America’s founding principles between law and its trans-political ground in Nature and God, the American Left is making the “rough places plain,” not for the realization of King’s Dream, but for a statist Nightmare.

America does not need any new dreams or dreamers, as the years of “Hope” and “Change” make clear. America’s Founding Dream, which is King’s Dream, remains “the last best hope of earth.” But unless this Dream is revitalized in the hearts and minds of Americans, it shall, like Prospero’s magnificent pageant in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “dissolve” and “leave not a rack behind.”

 Nathan Schlueter ([email protected]) is the author of One Dream or Two? Justice in America and in the Thought of Martin Luther King Jr.

Aubrey Shines

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the media have been focusing intensely on the “I Have A Dream” speech. One point that is overlooked in the coverage is the fact that Dr. King spoke from an uncompromising Biblical worldview.

His role as an active member of the clergy should not be lost on modern audiences. Months before he addressed the entire world from the National Mall, he wrote an open letter to eight clergy from a Birmingham jail. In that letter, he admonished clergy for sitting on the sidelines as the most important cultural issues of the day took center stage. Today, there are clergy who fear diminishing membership numbers and the political-correctness police — so they remain silent on the most important cultural issues of the day: abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, illegal immigration, out-of-wedlock-birth rates, black-on-black and black-on-white crime. I believe that if Dr. King were dreaming today, he would again recognize the “fierce urgency of now” and encourage his fellow clergy to have courage and speak out with Biblical truth.

 Bishop Aubrey Shines is senior pastor at Glory To Glory Ministries in Tampa, Fla.



Limited government, property rights, equality under the law, natural law, individual rights, and democracy constitute the American Creed — the basis upon which the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution, and the state constitutions were written. It is the Creed, not the founding documents or the political institutions that have emerged from them, that is this nation’s promissory note.

The enduring political relevance and intellectual power of Martin Luther King Jr.’s August 28, 1963, speech on the National Mall is that he made his appeal to the nation about the condition of the American Negro on the basis of the Creed. He did not utter a word about Congress, the courts, or the presidency. He spoke instead about “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” and invoked “the promises of democracy.”

Political institutions can be brought in line with the American Creed, but if not closely watched they take on their own purpose. Laws that reflect American ideals can be amended by a strategic politician with a different agenda.

The great tragedy of contemporary America is that many African Americans have been misled by the notion that political institutions hold the key to safety and prosperity. While the federal government has instituted landmark legislation, executive orders, and judicial decrees that have made political institutions more responsive to American values, the promise offered by American political thought is often ignored.

The Creed is much sturdier than the institutions through which it is expressed because it is the reason this nation came into existence. It is the clarion call to the millions who seek refuge here from oppression in other countries. It is the basis upon which Americans who otherwise disagree vote together and change the nation. For me, that’s the legacy of Dr. King’s speech.

 Kiron K. Skinner is the director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for International Relations and Politics and is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Deforest B. Soaries Jr.

Fifty years after the famous 1963 March on Washington, I have a dream that Americans will increase their financial capacity by changing their relationship with money.

It is true that some of the racist attitudes of the past still linger despite the significant progress that has been made. But those attitudes no longer represent the primary barrier that prevents low-income and African-American people from advancing. Like the rest of our culture, the groups at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are being consumed by consumption and find themselves drowning in consumer debt, living above their economic means, and patronizing nontraditional financial services including check-cashing stores, gold-for-cash shops, auto-title loan schemes, and payday loans. Our national passion to consume and our cultural reluctance to budget and save represent real threats to our ever achieving the kind of economic progress that Dr. King envisioned. In his last speech, on April 3, 1968, he urged his listeners to open bank accounts in the African-American bank in Memphis. Today, 21 percent of African Americans have no bank account, and 33 percent have a bank account but still use expensive nontraditional financial services. When 54 percent of African Americans are what the FDIC calls “unbanked” and “underbanked,” there is a crisis that defies traditional solutions offered by civil-rights perspectives.

Our global economic crisis of the past five years was made possible by the gasoline of corporate greed being thrown on the fire of inappropriate desire and willingness to borrow money by too many people. We have more credit cards than we have people in this country and the average American family has more credit-card debt than savings. And this epidemic of “buy now, pay later” that has seized our culture has made millions of low-income people vulnerable to the most pernicious predatory schemes we have ever seen.

The payday-loan industry, for instance, provides short-term, high-cost loans to approximately 33,000 people every day. In the State of Ohio, these loans have published interest rates of 700 to 800 percent. Although payday-loan stores are a recent development, since 1990 more payday-loan stores are now in existence than McDonalds and Starbucks combined. It has been documented that such borrowing becomes a debt trap for millions of people who have difficulty ever repaying their original loan, and they contribute to a financial plunge into economic disaster for millions of borrowers. These products are marketed primarily to low-wage earners  exactly the kind of workers that Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis to support when he was killed.

My dream is to educate people about the dangers of payday-loan products, advocate for government regulation of such products, and work toward creating low-cost alternatives for people who need access to credit and are not being served by commercial banks. As long as America embraces this kind of reverse Robin Hood enterprise in which the rich are able to benefit from the victimization of the poor of all races, Dr. King’s dream will never be realized.

 DeForest B. Soaries Jr. is the author of dfree: Breaking Free from Financial Slavery.

Hans von Spakovsky
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. focused his attention on the official, unofficial, and legal barriers preventing black Americans from achieving their full potential as American citizens. From discrimination in employment to barriers that kept them from registering and voting, from separate and unequal education to prohibitions that kept them out of restaurants and hotels, black Americans were not treated equally under the law as they had every right to be.

All of those barriers have been destroyed. Black Americans have the ability to register, vote, and run for office; to work anywhere; to eat in every restaurant and stay in every hotel in America; to get a seat on any train, airplane, or other mode of public transportation. They can be elected president and be appointed as attorney general or to a seat on the Supreme Court, or make a fortune in Hollywood or in business. They are protected from discrimination in the rare instances when it does still occur by a host of local, state, and federal laws that prohibit and ban such behavior (though we have twisted the original objectives of the civil-rights movement by today allowing some discrimination to continue, such as college-admissions policies that favor one race of students over another).

But the black family seems in worse shape today than during some of the worst times of the civil-rights movement. The rates of poverty, drug use, unemployment, broken families, rampant criminality, children born out of wedlock, and dependency on government have soared. That is the biggest problem in the black community today, not sanctioned discrimination as it existed 50 years ago.

If Dr. King were alive today, he would be appalled at what has happened to the black family, even as the legal barriers that prevented black Americans from enjoying their full rights as Americans disappeared. And I have no doubt that he would be trying to correct that problem and reverse a dangerous decline that threatens the well-being of a community he gave his life to free.

 Hans von Spakovsky is manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative and a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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