Fifty years ago I told you I had a dream. Many of you have been taught to remember me only for the ideas I voiced then, as a civil rights leader. Yet even then, our march was for jobs and freedom. Some of you recall more, such as my talk Beyond Vietnam, delivered at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, in April 1967. I spoke then of the
very obvious . . . connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor—both black and white—through the Poverty Program. Then came the build-up in Vietnam, and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political play thing of a society gone mad on war . . . . So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
I have seen more today, and so have you. I have seen American forces and their proxies intervene in the internal affairs of countries from Latin America to Africa to the Middle East, always spilling streams of blood, innocent blood, often the blood of people who wanted nothing more than a country run for the common good instead of for foreign and domestic elites, and the blood of those who had nothing to do with the struggles but whose lives and well-being were thought collateral and expendable, by those you call your leaders.
I have seen that same disregard for lives that are as precious as ours—in the eyes of God and in the eyes of those whose vision has not been occluded by the insanity of the prevailing ideology—permit the use of the velvet fist of economic sanctions to inflict heartbreaking hardship and death on millions. I have seen horrible wars in Iraq, a country still reeling with the destructive force of the whirlwinds we unleashed there, and Afghanistan, where the best this country seems to be able to summon is the courage to send unmanned killing machines to extend the suffering into Pakistan.
Sadly, I predicted this in my Beyond Vietnam talk. I cited "a pattern of suppression which now has justified [U.S. actions] in Venezuela . . . in Colombia . . .in Peru." I noted our nation's "refus[al] to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment." And I warned,
When machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. . . . The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves . . . marching and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
But now more than ever, I see a polity that has war for economic and political empire embedded in the logic of its very being. I am weary, as I know you are, weary of war, weary of marching to end wars, weary of Dick Cheneys who express open contempt for the popular desire for peace, and weary of Bill Clintons and Barack Obamas who hear your pain and keep on causing it.
In that talk on war I also emphasized the need to take care of our own. A year later, the day before I left you, I spoke in Memphis, connecting the sanitation workers' strike to the Poor Peoples' Movement we were building. I said that there was no other period in history in which I would ask the Almighty to let me live. My explanation is even more true today. I acknowledged
Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. . . . But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period . . . in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.
Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. . . .we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them.
I was far more radical then than those who want to put me on a postage stamp and associate me with only the struggle for equal rights would have you believe. It was because I knew more; I saw more injustice than merely the evils of segregation, disgraceful and harmful though they were.
The Limits of Protest
And yet I know more now than I knew then. And you know it too. Those same forces, those same institutions, which cannot stop themselves from making war, from extracting the labor and resources of those in countries far poorer and weaker than ours, from throwing our own people out of work by the hundreds of thousands while crushing others with overtime, from building schools that drain vitality from the souls of our children, from turning the practice of medicine into a business that leaves tens of millions with less care than the people of Cuba have—those same forces cannot stop themselves from destroying God's gorgeous creation, from destroying the planet itself and all that live on it.
Today I don't know that I would organize another march, because I have learned something else. And so have you, but it takes courage to even allow the thought. The decades of marching, protesting, demanding justice had their place, and they will have their place. But you must move beyond demanding economic and social and environmental and international justice from those who cannot give it, cannot permit it, can only feel threatened by what they perceive as the subversiveness of the demand for it.
They seem powerful and smart, but they are ignorant. Amos proclaimed the truth about those "who store up violence and robbery in their palaces." "[T]hey know not," he said, "to do right." And because of that ignorance, conditioned in them by their station in society, the minions of corporate power can be trusted to run neither your economic nor your political life, nor to provide you the information and ideas you require to understand what is going on around you and even inside you. No amount of protest will change that, nor can it reform the system that lets the majority of the super-wealthy buy themselves a government.
That means that the most urgent task, what God demands of you, is to create a movement that will compel those minions to lay down their weapons—physical and ideological and psychological—and step aside in favor of a new government, created by your own unstoppable movement. You must think the unthinkable: it is a time, I must say to you, for revolution. For peaceful, nonviolent revolution to be sure, but revolution nonetheless. Even in my 1967 talk, I said, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." Is that any less true today?
The nation is in political and spiritual crisis, and the most fundamental manifestation of that crisis is that you have democracy in name only. You are ruled by those whose hearts and minds are themselves ruled by the compulsion to maximize corporate profitability, and only a peaceful revolution can change that.
The people I refer to command immense power, yet they can do nothing without your cooperation. To cause the eventual collapse of their regime, however, you must get serious. It is not enough to occupy public space. It is not enough to march in the streets. It it is not enough to write letters in support of those who blow the whistle and sound the alarm on ever-greater abuses. It is not enough to try to defend against every new war and threat of war, every new pipeline, every new attack on poor people and on working people and unions. You must take a longer view.
Fulfilling a Bigger Dream
Ask yourselves, how do we build a single organization that can advocate for all the needs of the people and the planet, and which fights not only against what the promoters of another agenda thrust in your faces, but works for its own positive program, a program that arises out of love for all of Creation and all beings within it? What is that organization's strategy—over the years it will take to build the groundswell of direct action that will bring it to power—what, you must ask, is its strategy for washing away misinformation and false ideologies with truth, truth, and more truth? How will you use every one of those battles you are forced to fight to not only ameliorate the worst abuses in the short run, but to build the movement for the deepest change and to re-learn the power of united action, a lesson that we learned through doing 50 years ago?
Now, when I once more recall the words of the prophet, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," I know more than ever that nothing can create this but a broad, surging river of humanity.
So my dream today is for a society where you no longer march, you no longer protest, because you are in charge, not others from whom you seek justice. My dream is for true democracy. My dream is for a regime of God's love on earth—and I do not mean by the dictates of any particular religious philosophy. And you can fulfill that dream.
March, yes, march for justice. March to stop a war. March to remove the license of certain elements among the police and others to kill people of color with impunity. March again for jobs. But let each march, each campaign for what is right, be an opportunity to broaden and deepen that surging river, to draw more people to the cause, to teach what is needed, and why it is needed, and to inspire with a vision of how it will inevitably come about.
Because it will. God did not create you to witness, and be forced to participate in, the slow cooking of this beautiful planet. God did not create you to be passive, helpless bystanders to the economic and social and physical and spiritual victimization of yourselves or those who, no matter how different they look and sound, are your sisters and brothers and children. He did not create you to turn away from pain, injustice, and even horror, pretend that they are not there, so you can avoid feeling the soul sickness of helpless inaction.
God created you to build Heaven on earth. That vision is today so far from your reality, so far from what you have been taught can be done, that it must sound like some Utopian fantasy. But you have prophets today who can show you the way. Listen to them. Add your own voices, your own wisdom, your own creativity. Dream your own dream, then bring it into being.
Jesus taught, "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled." I say, do not dull your hunger and thirst in addictions, nor turn away from them towards distraction. If you allow your hunger and thirst in their full measure, you will be filled.
This is my dream today.