The political vocabulary of this year’s long, hot summer has been eerily reminiscent of what many consider the greatest political speech of the 20th century.

As politicians played chicken with the national debt ceiling, they spoke of debt and default and the duty one generation owes to another.

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.

A common turn of phrase

The metaphor of a check or promissory note was standard in political discourse at the time. Less than a month before King’s speech, a writer for Newsweek used a similar image, noting that African Americans had “demanded payment of the
century-old promissory note called the Emancipation Proclamation.” King’s speech explicitly invoked the memory of Abraham Lincoln, who had used the idea of debt and payment in his second inaugural address. If the Civil War continues, said Lincoln, “until all the wealth piled up by the bondman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” then that was God’s will. Other civil rights leaders had used similar language, often with apocalyptic overtones. The same summer as the March on Washington, Malcolm X had warned, “A bill is owed to us and must be collected.” Scholar Eric J. Sundquist points out that Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” says, “It’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it.”

It was not, however, an image that King used often. The scholar Wolfgang Meider, who has tracked King’s use of proverbial expressions, cites at least one other appearance of the promissory note in King’s writings, but in a different and not particularly inspirational context. When King used the image in August 1963, it was deployed as a strategically confrontational trope. King’s speech was a classic jeremiad, a well-worn rhetorical form, in which the speaker hurls an accusation and then follows it with a vision of national disaster or national rebirth, depending on how he thinks the country will respond to the imputed sin or crime. In King’s case, the jeremiad begins with the accusation of an unpaid debt and ends with an image of the country making good on its promise, on the dream.

The strange oblivion that has settled over the first half of King’s speech mirrors the oblivion that covers the man himself. For decades, as the contours of King’s life became more clear, including his voracious sexual appetites and his too-
frequent plagiarism, King’s admirers and detractors have argued that we remember the man selectively. In 1983, during the rancorous debate about the creation of a federal holiday in honor of King, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) took to the floor of the Senate to argue that “while he is generally remembered today as the pioneer for civil rights,” it was essential that King’s “hostility to and hatred for America should be made clear.” King certainly didn’t hate America, but, as progressive critics of his legacy argue, the real force of King’s critique of the United States has been lost. Vincent Harding, a historian and colleague of King, focuses on the Dream speech as the pivotal moment in our national amnesia. “Brother Martin spent a fair amount of time in jail,” wrote Harding in 2003, “but his worst imprisonment may be how his own nation has frozen him in that moment in 1963.”

After 1965, when King became more focused on what he termed “the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism,” the civil rights leader began calling for a broader revolution in values. Fighting racism wasn’t enough, and racism was a wily thing. In the South, it had meant confrontation with open bigotry and violence; but in places such as Chicago, where King turned his attention in 1966, it was more systemic, more adaptive and harder to challenge with the theatrics of nonviolence. “The absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice,” King wrote in 1968. “America,” he said, might have to “move toward democratic socialism.”

Some critics of King’s later years have suggested that our selective memory of his legacy is a perfectly natural referendum on the man. We remember the King we like. People who lament the editing down of King’s rhetoric to the purely inspirational phrases of the pre-1965 King, says author Nathan Schlueter, are “assuming a moral equivalence between both phases of King’s career that a large number of thoughtful and well-intentioned Americans reject.”

But the focus on two Kings, neatly divided by some date on the calendar, doesn’t really hold up. Even early in his career, King could be remarkably strident in his rhetoric. In 1957, in Tennessee, he spoke against the exclusion of African Americans from economic opportunity, saying, “It is murder in the first degree.”

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.

Missing meaning

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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