Rebecca de Schweinitz: More Than Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream

We welcome a guest post today from Rebecca de Schweinitz, author of If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality. Her book is the first book to connect young people and shifting ideas about children and youth with the black freedom struggle, and in it she explains how popular ideas about youth and young people themselves–both black and white–influenced the long history of the movement. As we witness the dedication of the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial statue in Washington this weekend, de Schweinitz reminds us that King is one of many who fought for a dream during the long civil rights struggle.–ellen

Sunday, August 28, marks the 48th Anniversary of the March on Washington. I imagine that most Americans think of the 1963 march when they think of the civil rights movement. It’s also likely that most Americans think of the Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr. and his “dream” that his “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” when they think of that day in August. This is the moment in the long struggle for racial equality that we remember or are taught to remember. It’s not surprising, for who can help but be moved by the way King presented the struggle for racial equality on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial? Drawing on ideas about childhood innocence, vulnerability, and possibility, he explained the meaning of the movement in terms that every American mother and father could understand.

It is fitting that the dedication of the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial is scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the March.  Both have come to represent the civil rights movement in our public memory. As a student and teacher of American history I am pleased that the black freedom struggle and one of its champions now occupy a prominent position on the Tidal Basin between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. But I worry that the memorial and our continued focus on King may further obscure civil rights history even as it encourages us to celebrate and acknowledge the importance of the black freedom struggle to America’s past and present.

The March on Washington, the event we usually identify as a triumph for the civil rights movement, was, for many participants in the civil rights struggle, a distraction—a break from the real work of achieving racial equality. When we watch YouTube clips of King’s speech we tend to forget that four little black girls were killed while attending church in Birmingham a few weeks later, that many southern schools remained segregated nearly a decade after Brown, that blacks still faced widespread employment and housing discrimination, that many states prohibited interracial marriages, or that the country had yet to enact legislation that guaranteed African Americans the basic rights of citizenship.  And we forget that the March was originally designed to be a Children’s March from “the most segregated city in America” to the nation’s capitol, and to further harness the energy and enthusiasm of young people who had turned public attention to Birmingham’s floundering civil rights campaign that spring.

Similarly, we forget that the successes of the civil rights movement required over a century of work by thousands of dedicated activists. To be sure, Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work, his vision for America, is worthy of commemoration.  But King’s life and work, his vision, was the life and work and vision of countless others. As scholars have pointed out, King was a leader among many in “a forest of tall trees.”

Of course, this is a problem with the way we tell our history in general. We keep our national stories simple. The plot-lines in our public memory focus on big events and individuals who changed the course of history. Those who visit the MLK Memorial site in the years to come will likely leave the monument inspired by the wisdom and courage of the young black preacher from Georgia who helped make a more democratic and free America. But they will also leave with their notion of King as THE important figure in civil rights history, and their belief that GREAT men (and sometimes women) are responsible for major historical change intact, even reinforced.

To their credit, the foundation in charge of the memorial is trying to recognize that many others made the civil rights movement possible through its dedicatory events. There will be a luncheon devoted to civil rights pioneers and another honoring “women who dare to dream,” as well as events reflecting on the music of the movement, the role of religion, and leaders around the world who fight for peace and equality. There is also a youth event, “Dream Keepers,” designed to encourage future leaders to “spread Dr. King’s message.”

I am somewhat disappointed by this youth initiative. Teaching young people about the history of the civil rights movement and encouraging them to find ways to spread its ideals when they get older are worthwhile goals. Yet youth were and are more than future leaders, “keepers” of the dream.

“King’s” life and work and vision was the life and work and vision of 16-year old Barbara Johns, who organized a 1951 strike among black students at Prince Edward County, Virginia’s Moton High School. The students enlisted the help of the NAACP, and their suit made it all the way to the Supreme Court as one of five cases decided in the historic 1954 Brown ruling.  Johns had convinced her peers to take action saying, “Our parents ask us to follow them, but in some instances . . . a little child shall lead them.”

Johns and her friends were not the only young people to lead the civil rights movement. “King’s” life and work and vision was the life and work and vision of youth who spearheaded anti-lynching demonstrations in the 1930s and economic boycotts in the 1940s, and who took up the challenge of desegregating schools in the 1950s. It was the life and work and vision of young people who became Freedom Riders and who initiated and joined in sit-ins across the South in the early 1960s. It was the life and work and vision of thousands of young people who went to jail and gave up high school graduations, college degrees, monetary stability, prestigious careers, and sometimes their lives to challenge segregation and help register voters and secure basic rights for all Americans.

In the 1960s, historian and civil rights participant Howard Zinn noted that “sharp action by the youngsters” set the tone and pattern for the civil rights movement.[1] Former student leader Diane Nash explains in Eyes on the Prize that although “the media and history seems to record [the African American freedom struggle] as Martin Luther King’s movement . . . young people should realize that it was people just like them, their age, that formulated goals and strategies and actually developed the movement.” Another student activist from the time put her sense of young people’s role in the civil rights movement more bluntly: “people always give us this line about being the leaders of tomorrow; that’s bunk. We’re the leaders of today.”[2]

The words from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech were not among the quotations chosen to be inscribed in stone at the memorial—they are too well-known, according to the designers.  It is just as well. For while those words aligned the civil rights movement with middle-class family values and helped to bring support to the struggle for racial equality, they have also helped to obscure the primary role that young people played in the movement, presenting them as symbols, passive objects, rather than as the significant agents of historical, political, and social change that they were.

Like their counterparts from decades ago, young people today are and can be more than “Dream Keepers.” But when we talk about the goals, accomplishments, and values of the civil rights movement as the legacy of one man we misrepresent the black freedom struggle, underestimate youth, and risk limiting the possibilities for change. It’s my hope that as we honor King and the movement he represents we begin to more closely examine the many people—including youth—whose lives, work, and vision helped move our country closer toward its ideals.

Rebecca de Schweinitz is assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University and the author of If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality.


[1] Howard Zinn, “Albany,” 8 January 1962, Series 5 Folder 6, Aubrey Neblett Brown Jr. Papers, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.

[2] Lyn Wells, “To All SNCC Projects and Offices,” 1965, Reel 55, Frame 333, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Papers (microfilm edition).