In 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what is now known as his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he began not with utopian images of racial harmony — children holding hands, black and white breaking bread together — but with the metaphor of a bad check.
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said, in what rhetoricians would call the exordium, or introduction, of his speech. And he went on to accuse the United States of being a moral skinflint when it came to honoring the debts of justice. “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”
It is a stark metaphor, an accusation articulated in bluntly economic terms. The Declaration of Independence implied, and later the Emancipation Proclamation promised, meaningful freedom to African Americans. But the promise was never fulfilled. “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’ ” King said.
This part of the speech has been mostly forgotten, swamped in collective memory by the soaring rhetoric of King’s peroration. When initial renderings for the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial were first unveiled, they included a prominent place for the promissory-note metaphor, but as the project went forward the quotation was deemed “too confrontational” and dropped from the final design.
What is best remembered from the Dream speech is, in fact, not original to it. The thrilling incantation, the cries of “let freedom ring,” the litany of place names (the snowcapped Rockies, the molehills of Mississippi), the lines borrowed from the biblical books of Amos and Isaiah, the quotations from spirituals and patriotic songs — none of this material was original to the speech King gave on the Mall. Most of it was recycled, an impromptu decision by King to reuse some of the best applause lines he had tested in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama and, only weeks earlier, in Detroit.
But the metaphor of the promissory note, which occurs rarely in King’s other speeches and writing, was peculiar to his Washington speech, and it was an essential part of his argument. That it is forgotten speaks volumes about how King has been processed in the national memory, about the powerful amnesia that has allowed King to be sanctified as an anodyne saint of racial harmony, despite his radical message and his evolution, after the 1963 March on Washington, into a vigorous critic of militarism, materialism and capitalism. With the opening of a new monument to King on the nation’s most symbolically significant land, King has been burnished into something almost unrecognizable, and the promissory note has disappeared from the record.