The Sydney Morning Herald

By Michael Ondaatje

Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech was one of the greatest oratorical achievements in American history and one of the emotional high points of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King seared the plight of African Americans into the public consciousness and challenged the United States to live up to its founding ideals by ending centuries of pervasive discrimination against black people.

King envisioned a new America where people would "not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character". In doing so, he gave millions of Americans, black and white, a language to express their aspirations for change.

The speech was simultaneously an expression of hope for a brighter future for African Americans, and a scorching indictment of the racism African Americans continued to confront.

Within two years, Congress had passed civil rights legislation outlawing segregation and guaranteeing black voting rights.

This Wednesday, August 28, marks the 50th anniversary of King's speech, and millions of Americans will doubtless observe the occasion by feting both dreamer and dream.

King will be held up as a symbol of political heroism from a bygone era — and there will be inevitable references to President Barack Obama and how he represents the fulfilment of his vision.

Yet King's true legacy is more complex than this. By reducing his career to a single expression, "I Have a Dream", we trivialise the substance of his message and distort the meaning of his life. King might have had a dream, but he was not a dreamer.

Perhaps the best way to understand King is to consider the opposition he faced in life. In August 1963, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover labelled him "the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation" and, with the approval of the Kennedys, began to wiretap his home, offices and hotel rooms.

In time, Hoover discovered many things about King. But his most important discovery was King's readiness to suffer and sacrifice for black freedom — to go to jail, endure beatings and risk death for the cause.

In articulating his dream, King's appetite for struggle shone through. He said that 1963 was "not an end but a beginning" for African Americans. Securing blacks' basic constitutional rights was his immediate priority. But in a sign of things to come, King also drew attention to the crippling scourge of black poverty. He knew that economic deprivation played a huge role in keeping blacks at the bottom of American society, and he understood that civil rights legislation alone would not guarantee racial equality.

Thus, with the passage of anti-discrimination laws in the mid-1960s, King broadened his focus and targeted what he saw as the trifecta of social misery in America: race, poverty and militarism.

More and more attuned to the problems of inadequate housing, insufficient jobs and inferior schools, he began to speak of the need for a "radical redistribution of economic and political power" to close the gap between the "haves" and "have nots".

King also became an outspoken critic of US involvement in Vietnam, viewing the war not only as morally unjust but as detracting from the struggle for racial and economic justice at home.

Indeed, in the final months of his life, King was planning an interracial poor people's campaign to pressure the federal government to implement programs to eradicate poverty in the US.

King's contribution to his country went well beyond words. Yet in 1968 neither the president, Lyndon Johnson, nor the two living former presidents, bothered to attend his funeral.

By then King's demand for "basic structural changes in the architecture of American society" had made him a far more dangerous figure in the eyes of the political establishment. He was branded a traitor because of his position on Vietnam and a socialist agitator because of his views on inequality.

In difficult times, King often lamented that "the dream I had in Washington back in 1963 has . . . turned into a nightmare". We might ask: if he were alive today, would he view America through the same pessimistic lens? It is difficult to know.

King would surely acknowledge the tremendous progress made in America by blacks: the election of a black president, the rise of African Americans in business and entertainment, and the expansion of the black middle class.

But he would be dismayed by the deteriorating circumstances of the black poor in a nation where the chasm between rich and poor is now wider than ever. And he would despair of the persistent racial inequities in the criminal justice system so tragically underscored in the recent Trayvon Martin case.

The 50th anniversary of "I Have a Dream" is an appropriate time to reflect on how far America has come, and how far it still has to go, to be the society King imagined.

King was more than a dreamer who solved the problems of the past. His vision challenges Americans to confront the problems of the present, and to be ever vigilant in pursuing justice and equality in the future.

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald