Forty-eight years ago Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave one of the most memorable speeches in American history. It is generally referred to as the "I Have A Dream" speech. But that was his inspirational closing, not the weighty content.
I often refer to it as the "bounced check" or "insufficient funds" speech. The substance of his remarks was economics, and the sociology was a nightmare, not a dream.
Dr. King described his role as disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed - which he reflects in the body (disturbing) and conclusion (comforting) of his speech.
Before the dream for America, he spoke about the injustice of America…."millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice." In the 100th year of the Emancipation Proclamation, King said, "the Negro still is not free….the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity….the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land."
Dr. King, speaking to the Congress from the Lincoln Memorial, said, "In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise 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.' It is obvious today that 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 people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds'.
"But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."
In 2011, on the eve of the dedication of the King Memorial, it is important to reflect on Dr. King's words - "insufficient funds," "bounced check" and "default" - in light of the recent Republican Tea Party threat not to lift the debt ceiling, resulting in a default of the full faith and credit of the United States. The Republican commitment to cut, cap and balance (i.e., adding a Balanced Budget Amendment) - and the absence of a Democratic message that includes constitutional amendments leading us to invest, build and grow - guarantees there will always be insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity and bounced checks from the nation for the unemployed, poorly educated, ill housed and sick - and not just for African Americans but all Americans!
How is it - other than a massive mal-distribution of income and wealth - that the richest nation on earth, with a $15 trillion GDP, has "insufficient funds" and continues to issue "bad checks" to a multitude, if not a majority, of Americans? In Dr. King's time, we spent billions to put a man on the moon and fight a war in Vietnam. In President Obama's time, we spend billions on tax cuts for the rich and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in neither time have we found the money to put a man or woman on their own two feet right here in America.
Today we need a new mass movement to fight, not merely for legislation, but for new constitutional rights -Roosevelt's 1944 Second Bill of Rights - to address the remaining problems of crippling unemployment; 50 million Americans without health insurance; a failing public education system; increased poverty; a housing crisis; a crippled health care system; while the top one percent earns 23.5 percent of all income (more than the bottom 50 percent); and the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90%.
In 2011, what would Dr. King and FDR say about a constitutional value that guarantees the individual right to a gun, but not the individual right to vote, education, health care, housing, a clean environment, equal rights for women, fair taxation or a job?
Like Dr. King, I too have a dream, to continue fighting for progressive legislation, but also to fight for new constitutional rights.