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let us be dissatisfied

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The past few years, I have given an essay assignment in my classes:

Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech is one of the most famous speeches of all time. Almost four years later, King gave a speech often called "Where Do We Go from Here?", in which he stated, “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.” Why is this speech less famous and less frequently anthologized than "I Have a Dream?"

The 1967 speech was given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The most common thesis my students offer is that “I Have a Dream” was seen by an enormous number of people, thanks to television, and was associated with a famous event, the March, while “Where Do We Go from Here” had a smaller audience and was not televised. Far less often, students noted the latter speech was far more radical than “Dream”, which makes it less appealing to anthologists. It was rare for a student to further examine why the “radical King” would be unappealing.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the speech:

We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. … Now we realize that dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. … I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth. …

[T]he Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Perhaps most telling, the repetitive catch phrase that King uses as he closes his speech, the equivalent of the earlier “I have a dream”, is “Let us be dissatisfied.”

So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a "divine dissatisfaction." Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity. Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together. and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout "White Power!" - when nobody will shout "Black Power!" - but everybody will talk about God's power and human power.

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