What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run? …
~ Langton Hughes, "Harlem"
Since Hughes wrote "Harlem" in 1951, literary critics have tried to identify the dream Hughes wrapped in his inscrutable verse. Some suggest Hughes makes a veiled reference to his alleged homosexuality; which Hughes would have concealed in order to keep the support of African American churches and organizations.
Others insist Hughes gave voice to the disillusionment and frustrations of African Americans. Ninety years after the civil war, African Americans had seen the dreams crushed by continuing prejudice and post-Civil War legislation designed to disenfranchise and marginalize them. In 1951, African Americans lived on the cusp of two civil rights movements. The first, from 1896 to 1954, was bookended by two Supreme Court rulings —Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld "separate but equal" racial segregation, and the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which overturned Plessy.
What we know as the modern civil rights movement spanned from 1955, after the Court’s Brown decision, to 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Like the earlier movement, from which it grew, the new movement fought to expose and end the violence, discrimination and disenfranchisement many blacks lived under, especially in the south.
But, Martin Luther King, Jr, — through events like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, and the Poor People’s Campaign — envisioned an even broader phase of the civil rights movement that put racial injustice in the context of economic injustice. Less than a week before his assassination in Memphis, King gave voice to that vision, in a speech at the National Cathedral, titled "Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution."
There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia…
Not only do we see poverty abroad, I would remind you that in our own nation there are about forty million people who are poverty-stricken. I have seen them here and there. I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia. I have just been in the process of touring many areas of our country and I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying…
This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.
In a few weeks some of us are coming to Washington to see if the will is still alive or if it is alive in this nation. We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We are going to bring those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. We are going to bring children and adults and old people, people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives.
We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.
We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible…
King did not live to see the Poor People’s Campaign. Instead, Rev. Ralph Abernathy led the thousands of marchers, invoking King’s vision in his own plainspoken style.
Thousands of people participated in the march on May 12, 1968.
"We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America’s wealth and opportunity, and we will stay until we get it," Abernathy said as he led the way for demonstrators.
The Poor People’s Campaign failed to achieve its goals, as a movement and nation still reeling from King’s assassination were rocked by the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Yet it represents the evolution of every modern progressive movement for social change, as each ultimately seeks to lay claim to the "promissory note" King spoke of.
Think about where we are now and how far from the birth of this country, when its promises were reserved for a narrow portion of its population. Yet, its principles provided the basis for ever progressive movement that had as its goal the extension of those promises to the full spectrum of the population.
And yes, they were progressive movements. By the very nature of their work, they could hardly be otherwise.
…From the abolitionists movement, to the labor movement, to the suffragists movement, to the civil rights movement, to the feminist movement, to the LGBT movement; every progressive movement that has advocated for change “as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are.”
They were and are driven by individuals lending their strength and their hearts to bending the arc of the universe towards justice, because they are comprised of people for whom the status quo is the opposite of justice and people for whom injustice — even though visited upon others, and even though it affords them some privileges — is intolerable.
Each sought to establish a claim on the American Dream — the promise of a "better, richer, and fuller life," the opportunity to "attain the fullest stature of which they are innately capable," and "be recognized by others for what they are" — for those to whom it was denied since our nation’s founding.
For those who seek it, the core of the American dream is achieving social and economic security for themselves, their families, and by extension, their communities. Progressive movements – the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the gay rights movement, etc. — have sought to expand access to the American Dream, and the social and economic security it represents, to those historically excluded from it. Conservative opposition to progressive movements has been "standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’"
By some measures, it’s been a losing battle for conservatives. But they are not done fighting yet. Efforts to place the American Dream within reach for more Americans have been relatively successful, but are also incomplete. As they try to reverse the gains that have made social and economic security attainable for millions of Americans, today’s conservatives are fighting to wrest the American Dream away from those to whom they believe it doesn’t belong, and for whom they believe it was never intended.
The difference between now and then is that, while race and gender are part of the equation, the dividing line is economic and is drawn against working- and middle-class Americans.