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Still dreaming of a level field after all these years

by Hiroaki Sato

Wednesday will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that soon came to be equated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream.”

Delivered with what I take to be a Southern preacher’s passionate cadence blended into skillful anaphora, the speech was filled with literary allusions, historical references, and homely images.

King began with, “Five score years ago” — an unmistakable reminder of President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” in November 1863, which began, “Four score and seven years ago,” echoing the Bible.

The clear reference was a must. Speeches that day, including King’s, were made in front of the Lincoln Memorial, “in whose shadow we stand today.”

King cited “the magnificent words” of the Declaration of Independence — that “all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — only to say that they were but “a promissory note.”

For “America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ “

This metaphor, so close to the nearly 250,000 blacks gathered on Washington Mall that day, provoked cries of approval, clapping and laughter.

King quoted from the Bible several times. Once he did, while repeating “I have a dream,” to express the hope that all racial inequities be erased: “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” (Isaiah 40: 4-5).

When he spoke of “this sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent,” he was alluding to the opening of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”

King quoted the patriotic song, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing,” to pay due respects to the United States. It’s no wonder that “I Have a Dream” became a catalyst for the Civil Rights Act of the following year and the Voting Rights Act of the year next.

King’s masterful oratory aside, what struck me as I listened to “I Have a Dream” to write this piece was not so much that Abraham Lincoln was “a great American,” as King called him, or that the 16th president worked hard on the 13th Constitutional Amendment abolishing slavery, the subject of Spielberg’s recent film, “Lincoln,” that I saw.

Rather, what stood out, as far as U.S. history is concerned, was Thomas Jefferson’s blatant hypocrisy in projecting idealisms in the Declaration of Independence that he drafted. Over the years I have learned these about “the Sage of Monticello”:

• He owned as many as 140 slaves and was not particularly magnanimous with them.

• He sired six children with the enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, though some “Jefferson scholars” continue to deny that he had sex with her.

• He was one of the “Negro Presidents.”

This last refers to the men elected president as a result of Article 1, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, which counted a slave as “three-fifths” of a free man for the pretense of representative government. The slave was given no right to vote naturally.

It was not all Jefferson’s fault, some would say. Those who came under the influences of the Enlightenment believed in racial rankings, with Africans at the bottom. Jefferson was one of them.

Still, he completely disregarded his own conduct even as he declared the ringing affirmation of “certain unalienable Rights” as “self-evident.”

This hit home recently when I read Richard Kluger’s “Simple Justice” (Vintage, 1977), a painstaking account of the tortuous legal maneuvers and battles that, at least in Constitutional terms, finally culminated in the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. Jefferson’s hypocrisy had received an unexpectedly harsh spotlight nearly 100 years earlier.

In 1857, writing the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Brooke Taney flatly stated that Scott, because he was a Negro and of “an inferior order,” had no rights.

“It is too clear for dispute,” Taney argued, that “the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted” the Declaration of Independence.

The reason was, he said, “if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed [it] would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted; and instead of the sympathy of mankind, to which they so confidently appealed, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.”

The decision is said to have caused a political furor because it nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820 on slave and nonslave states and because of the rising abolitionist sentiments, and thus “indirectly” led to the Civil War. But as far as judicial reasoning goes, Taney’s observation was faultless.

Jefferson’s idealism so nobly stated suffered another black eye four decades later. In the Declaration of Independence, he proclaimed all he sought from Great Britain was “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”

In 1896, the Supreme Court asserted, in Plessy v. Ferguson, that a single drop of African blood could be reason enough for segregating a black person in public accommodations as long as the accommodations were “equal,” thereby establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine. It took more than half a century for Brown V. Board of Education to overturn this heinous constitutional judgment. The unanimous decision under Chief Justice Earl Warren declared that “separate but equal” to be “inherently unequal.”

Martin Luther King spelled out his “dreams” 100 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and 9 years after Brown v. Board of Education. Yet he had to say, “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

King ended his speech by quoting the hopeful words of an old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Now, half a century later, in schools resegregation seems complete.

And in June, Chief Justice John Roberts struck down as unconstitutional the crucial part of the Voting Rights Act, which gives the federal government a practical means of preventing voting discrimination. Roberts is said to have meant to take this step since he worked for President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s.

Forces against blacks remain strong despite the fact this country now has the first black president.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist living in New York.