In June 1968, close to five years after Dr. Martin Luther King gave his speech, “I have a dream” in Washington, D.C., Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth gave a speech in Bay City, Michigan, titled “America’s Challenge: Fulfilling the Dream.” A copy of this speech is among the various items donated by Reverend Shuttlesworth to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. As the leader of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Reverend Shuttlesworth worked closely with Dr. King from 1955 till his death in 1968. Reverend Shuttlesworth collaborated with Dr. King in an infinite number of ways, key amongst are the Montgomery bus boycott, the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the March on Washington, and protests in Birmingham including the one that resulted in Dr. King’s arrest in 1963 during which Dr. King wrote the famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” From this close collaboration, Reverend Shuttlesworth gained some keen insights and was intimately familiar with Dr. King’s thinking.
Reverend Shuttlesworth’s speech, “America’s Challenge: Fulfilling the Dream,” provides not only a reflection on the meaning of Dr. King’s word but also an assessment of what followed in the five years after the speech. In 1968 Reverend Shuttlesworth did not believe that the “dream” had been realized. But at the same time he appreciated that he was speaking at a time of great change and progress. In this speech, Reverend Shuttlesworth comments on the history of the civil rights movement highlighting a couple of major achievements, namely the passage of the Civil Rights Act and re-enfranchisement of African Americans. He also discusses the essence of Dr. King’s “dream” as one of a tolerant society and economic and social justice.
With the upcoming 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and in remembrance of Dr. King this January, Reverend Shuttlesworth’s words provide a useful guide to reflect on progress in realizing this “dream” in the last 45 years. In some aspects, it is a speech that could be read today.
“America’s Challenge: Fulfilling the Dream”
There can no longer be any blinking of the fact that we are in the midst of a social and moral revolution in this land.
For unnumbered years America has allowed injustice to reign unchecked throughout the fabric of its whole life. In the South there were open and flagrant violations against Blacks, poor Whites, and other minorities. In the North there were the insidious, and many times, invisible workings of discrimination which were harder to see, but had the same chilling effect of killing hopes, shattering dreams, and stifling initiative.
Then in 1955, under the leadership of a young prophet named Martin Luther King, Jr., Negroes moved to challenge the conscience of this nation by non-violent demonstrations. It is now history – the battles of Montgomery, Alabama, Albany, Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama, which gave us the Civil Rights Bill, and Selma, Alabama, which gave Negroes the right to vote. There was the historic 1963 March on Washington, joined in by white and black, rich and poor, high and low, in which this modern Moses spoke of his Dream for America. His dream was not blacks overcoming whites or even the poor overcoming the rich; rather blacks and whites working together, those in power and with affluence helping to educate and lift the standards of the poor; and that somehow our land would seek to turn its face and energies from war and build here on these shores a heaven, a Beloved city, a brother hood-where man would become his brother’s keeper instead of his brother’s killer.
The Dreamer is dead but he lives in his dreams because they are really the dreams of America. They are the dreams of hope, of fulfillment, of creativity, of richness of character and life, of peaceful protest against any and all injustices, of having enough and a little to spare, of every man looking out for his brother and standing with his brother, of every man looking into his own heart and overcoming by the disposition of love the violence therein. This should be your dream; this is America’s Challenge.
Dr. King and his workers dreamed of a society that could overcome its own violent and racist tendencies. For it is a terrible violence that keeps men from becoming their best selves by whatever means it is accomplished. It is violence that men may be born in a society, grow up within it and learn that there is really no place in society for them. It is violence that some… in our society can brag of wall-to-wall carpets while so many complain of wall-to-wall roaches and rats. It is violence that the education system of this land has left so many unprepared for a day of technology and automation.
Speech Delivered by Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Bay City, Michigan, Saturday, June 1, 1968