Skip to main content

Cultivating Consciousness

Cultivating Consciousness: A Campaign for Change by Allison Dorsey
Allison Dorsey, associate professor of history and coordinator of the College's Black Studies Program, participated at the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on American Civil Rights at Harvard last summer. A former graduate researcher at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford, she is the author of Building Our Lives Together: Community Formation in Black Atlanta, 1875-1906 (2004). Write to her at

Allison Dorsey delivered the keynote address at the 13th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium held by the Student National Medical Association of the Duke University School of Medicine. She was invited by Charles Withers '02, a former student who is now co-president of the organization. The following is an excerpt of her speech.

nnually, on the occasion of the King Day celebration, the famous words of Dr. King's 1963 March on Washington Speech are replayed for a national and international audience: 


"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 the content of their character...  I have a dream that one day...little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."
These words have been repeated so often, taken out of context so often, used to justify public policy decisions that have little to do with the spirit of Dr. King or the Modern Civil Rights movement so often, that generations of Americans no longer have any idea what the words meant at the time they were spoken. The real meaning and, more important, the real power of Dr. King's speech lies in the context in which it was given and in the earlier parts of the speech.

First the context - Dr. King's speech, given August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C., was part of the culmination of the March for Jobs and Freedom. I repeat, the March for Jobs and Freedom. Jobs first - freedom second. The significance of the spirit of the march cannot be overstated. Some 250,000 demonstrators - civil rights activists, musicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, sharecroppers, waiters, bus drivers, nurses, maids, garbage men, ministers, and students — traveled to D.C. by car, train, bus, bicycle, and on foot to gather on the National Mall to express by their presence a commitment to better employment opportunities and better wages for economically repressed African Americans as well as express their continued commitment to, and a demand for, political equality. 

Allison speaks with Duke physician Anjolie Laubach '98 after her talk. 
At the time of the march, African American unemployment at 11% was more than twice white unemployment. Wages for African Americans working in the same jobs as their white counterparts, were often only half of the white norm. In addition, opportunities for upward mobility were, in most parts of the country - not just the southern U.S. - nearly nonexistent. For example, the average white family income in 1963 ($6,500) was three thousand more dollars per year than the average income for a black family.

Much of this discrepancy, which left many thousands of blacks living in dire poverty, was due to racial segregation and discrimination in employment, education, and access to social services. The March for Jobs and Freedom then, the space in which King gave his speech, was designed to formally protest - in the seat of the nation's political power - those patterns of exclusion, segregation, and discrimination that for all intents and purposes crippled the lives of black people in America and by extension undermined the nation's integrity and corrupted the promise of the American Dream.

Allison and Charles Withers '02, a third year medical student who describes a class he took with her his freshman year as "a rite of passage." 
King offered solutions in his now famous speech. Indeed, he clearly articulated the social change that was necessary for American society truly to become a place synonymous with the "freedom" that is so celebrated in the "free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last" conclusion to the "I have a dream" address. The solution itself, however, is offered earlier in the speech than that ringing final celebration when, in response to the question, "When will the Negro be satisfied?" King offered these words:
"We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of unspeakable horrors of police brutality; we can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities; we cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one; we can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "For Whites Only"; we cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No! No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." (Paraphrase of Amos 5:24 "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!")
This is key. Before the little children get to hold hands and sing, "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountain side, let freedom ring," "Justice" and "righteousness" must prevail.

In 1963 then, the solution to the problems of race-based repression of African Americans, the solution to the lack of social harmony in the nation, the solution to the problem of limited freedom in America was, as envisioned by Dr. King, rooted in a devotion to and a willingness to work for "Justice for all" people. This, the pursuit and then the full manifestation of Justice, was Dr. King's vision.

I consciously choose the term "vision" rather than "dream" because for most of us, a dream is either a fleeting set of images that flash across the brain pan while we sleep or some far off, unlikely, and romantic idea of something that is unlikely to occur.  Dr. King, I believe, was a prophet. He was not dreaming in the conventional sense of the term, but rather giving voice to his prophetic vision, anticipating the kind of society that would come into existence if we were willing to work for it.

From left, Duke physicians Jacob Laubach '94 and Anjolie Laubach '98, Charles Withers '02, and Allison Dorsey. 
Too often Americans, young and old, say that Dr. King's vision has been fully realized. African Americans and all other people of color now have their civil rights, they say. Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation and discrimination are gone, they say. Political equality is the norm in American life, they say. Of course, these people tend to cherry pick Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech and to dwell only on the "content of their character" and "hold hands" parts. They tend to pay less attention to the "horrors of police brutality," or "from a smaller ghetto to a larger one," parts of the speech.


We live in a society in which racial profiling, police brutality and officially sanctioned violent harassment of peaceful protestors remains commonplace. We live in a society where the working poor are experiencing downward mobility for the first time since the Eisenhower administration. We live in a society where an increasing number of young working class men and women have little or no chance of pursuing a meaningful education beyond high school. The question is not whether we have made progress since the time of Dr. King, as indeed, there has been progress. Rather, the issue is whether we live in a society marked by Justice and Freedom for all its citizens and whether or not we have the collective will to make it so.

By ignoring the rest of the history of the Civil Rights Movement and focusing only on that brilliant day in August 1963, contemporary Americans miss the spirit of the freedom struggle. By ignoring the written works of Dr. King, the numerous speeches, articles, and books in which he, one of the greatest orators and social philosophers of the 20th century, spelled out a concrete set of goals which must be achieved in order to create that just society, we are missing a still very relevant guide for our present and our future. Perhaps, most importantly, by turning Dr. King into a lone iconic figure and ignoring his place within a movement, we are in danger of isolating him, of placing him on a commemorative pedestal, where frozen in time he stands as only as a marker of things past.

For a complete set of these remarks, please contact Allison Dorsey at