Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Today, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is best remembered for a singular phrase in a soaring, panoramic keynote speech given by the 34-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream” became an instantly memorable line, so indelible that President John F. Kennedy, who met with King and other civil rights leaders that evening years ago, repeated the line back to the Atlanta-born preacher upon his arrival at the White House.
Surrounded by the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, before an audience of a quarter million people, King delivered a speech that was part religious sermon, historical seminar and political analysis. King held up the founding documents of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as sacred promises that remained, for Black Americans, unfulfilled. “And so we’ve come to cash this check,” he said, for reparations for over a century of violent indignities that continued into the present.
What took place on August 28, 1963, served as a highpoint of America’s Second Reconstruction, the heroic period of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s when the walls of segregation, Jim Crow and state-sanctioned discrimination came tumbling down, brick by painful brick. King delivered his address on the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, an anniversary he urged Kennedy to publicly acknowledge and amplify from the presidential bully pulpit. Kennedy, compelled by racial justice demonstrations and protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and around the nation, did so on June 11, in a televised address that offered a full-throated support for Black citizenship and dignity.
Against the backdrop of the racial and political reckoning of 2020 and the racial progress and political backlash that have followed, it is worth asking the question: Is the dream that King spoke of at the March on Washington alive in our own time?
The answer is a resounding yes.
The Biden-Harris Administration continues to take meaningful policy steps towards building the “Beloved Community” that King outlined at the March on Washington. From Biden’s inaugural address, where he became the first president to characterize white supremacist racial terror as an existential threat to democracy to executive orders that centered equity, this has thus far been an extraordinary presidency. As the nation heads toward the midterm elections, it is worth taking a deeper dive into what the Biden Administration has managed to accomplish in the most divisive political climate in perhaps more than a century.
The American Rescue Plan legislation passed at the start of 2021 represented a $1.9 trillion investment in post-Covid economic recovery that prioritized frontline health care, first responders, teachers, and communities in a manner that positively impacted workers of color. The legislation included direct cash benefits that assisted Black and Latino families experiencing severe economic hardship as a result of the pandemic. In addition, the Biden plan extended unemployment benefits for millions and deferred the repayment of student loans and rent. The passage of the infrastructure bill represents another generational investment in spending toward the public good in a nation where roads, bridges, subways and tunnels, especially in racially segregated and economically impoverished areas, have been victims of disinvestment and decay.
The Inflation Reduction Act, slimmed down from the President’s ambitious Build Back Better agenda, will cap the cost of certain exorbitantly priced prescription drugs and provide new investments in combating climate change. And Biden’s just-announced plan to cancel up to $20,000 in student debt is the first serious effort by the federal government to combat the trillion-dollar student loan debt crisis, an economic burden that drags on multiple generations’ prospects of upward mobility and stands in hypocritical contrast with the multi-trillion dollars bailouts in the wake of the Great Recession in 2008.
There have been setbacks too. Astonishingly, in the wake of the seismic racial justice movement sparked by George Floyd’s murder, the policing reform act that bears his name withered on the legislative vine. Efforts to expand and protect voting rights through the For the People and John Lewis Voting Rights Acts faltered in the wake of objections of two Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, whose votes were needed on a rules change crucial to passing the legislation in an evenly tied Senate chamber (where Vice President Kamala Harris represents the deciding vote).
Perhaps Biden’s biggest challenge during his presidency has been an inability to win the narrative wars that shape the public’s conception of the state of the union. Certainly, high inflation has not helped. Neither has increasing public focus on gun violence and the specter of urban crime. Voter suppression legislation and the proliferation of education-restricting measures by Republican-led states in Virginia, Florida and Texas reflect the hyper-polarization of the moment. The public Congressional hearings on the January 6 insurrection have offered a sobering reminder of the existential threats to democracy posed by White supremacy and the lies of former president Donald Trump and his supporters.
Which story Americans believe about who they are and where they’re going can change everything. The biggest achievement of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech proved to be the way it told America a new story about itself. King delved into the nation’s past, wrestled with the tragic legacy of racial slavery, Jim Crow, and domestic terror, lingered over the courage of White and Black Americans risking their lives to create a new world, and conjured up a future where, in that a yet undiscovered country, multiracial democracy would flourish and thrive.
Fifty-nine years later, despite enormous odds that we have all witnessed over the last several years, Americans themselves are the architects of both the successes and failures of the Biden-Harris Administration. At their best, President Biden and Vice President Harris have reflected, however imperfectly, the dream of multiracial democracy and national reconstruction that King so eloquently spoke of at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
“I have a dream today!”
That dream, bruised, bloodied and tattered, remains hopefully alive in the present. All it requires of us is to unburden ourselves of the cynicism the nation too often basks in, peddles to one another, and exploits for economic and political advantage, and look around at what we have been able to accomplish together.