In his book “King’s Dream,” Sundquist, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, argues that some of the most seemingly sweet images of the Dream speech were, in fact, some of its most incendiary. The vision of black and white children holding hands — seemingly an image of racial harmony — was particularly fraught: “Pointedly suffused with innocence, King’s interracial image was calculated nonetheless to touch the very nerve that segregationists recurred to time and again — the danger posed by ‘social integration’ to the innocent white children of the South,” Sundquist writes. It wasn’t just Hallmark sentiment but a coded allusion to miscegenation.
King’s rhetorical provocations were organically linked to his utopian rhetoric, and they mirrored his larger strategy as a civil rights leader. His successes in the South came when he was able to play the moderate and the militant, preaching nonviolence while drawing out the worst in his adversaries. His Dream speech enacted provocation and transcendence, and when he said that “with this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” he was summarizing not only his career but the basic structure of his sermon.
It is impossible to feel the full force of King’s speech without the promissory-note metaphor, just as it is impossible to understand King without knowledge of his larger, post-1965 jeremiad. But so much has changed since then that the image of the bad check sounds almost crass today. When Ronald Reagan denounced an unnamed “welfare queen” in his 1976 presidential campaign, decrying her “80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards,” he helped sour the idea of debt as a metaphor for justice. Today, King’s line, “We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check” sounds more like a blunt demand: You owe us. And heard in the context of a civil rights demonstration, the check metaphor sounds almost like a demand for reparations, an idea that agitates extremes of feelings among politicians and citizens alike.
The strange echo of the metaphor during this summer’s debt-ceiling debate may seem accidental. Washington wasn’t debating metaphorical obligations but all too real financial ones. But it was striking to hear how fundamentally America’s sense of itself had changed since King gave his Washington speech. Underneath his image of the promissory note was a profound conviction that America was prosperous, and that its prosperity could yield a better, more equitable society. The metaphor of a check owed to African Americans was premised on King’s refusal “to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” He believed that “America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values.”
Today, America feels poor, and the metaphorical landscape has shifted radically. The sense of being beleaguered by real debts is far more powerful than any lingering idea that we might be in one another’s debt. As the country celebrates the opening of the King memorial, there is an angry sense that while financially we owe too much, ethically nobody owes anybody anything. It might have staggered King’s imagination to learn that we now have an African American president. But it would have been even more overwhelming for him to imagine that in today’s America, most people think the vaults, real and metaphorical, are all empty.
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