Richard Epstein, "The Dream Derailed"

The Dream Derailed
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
August 27, 2013

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of over 200,000 people. The crowd had gathered to protest the dangerous state into which race relations had fallen in the summer of 1963. King’s memorable speech was part of “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” and its solemn cadences ring as powerfully today they did 50 years ago. No one who heard it could forget its immensely powerful assault on segregation, the demise of which no respectable person—northerner or southerner—mourns today. No one should forget that King’s speech was a major catalyst in moving a still reluctant nation to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Freedom vs. Jobs

The large praise heaped on the speech should not, however, blind us to the difficulty of reconciling the two major goals of the March on Washington. A campaign for both jobs and freedom will ultimately have to choose between them. King did not use the word “jobs” once in his speech. But he did insist that this nation redeem its promissory note to all citizens of “the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And he keenly recognized that freedom and the universality of rights are necessarily paired.

He observed, “Many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” From there, he neatly segued to two burning issues of the time: voting and public accommodations, which eventually became Title I and Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 respectively.

Richard A. Epstein