Woke or Still Dreaming? A Dialogue on MLK's "Dream" Speech, Social Justice Ideology, and the Future of Liberalism

An exchange of views on the launch of Dream Coalition 828



Featuring contributions from Dream Coalition, Andrew Gutmann, John Wood, Jr., and the editors of JFBT.

In this post, the Journal of Free Black Thought puts its core commitments to viewpoint diversity and free discourse into practice by presenting a dialogue between John Wood, Jr. (Braver Angels) and Andrew Gutmann (Institute for Liberal Values) around Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Dream” speech and the Dream Coalition 828 letter, to which FBT is a signatory. Andrew Gutmann was a primary drafter of the Dream Coalition 828 letter. Its content references and its release coincides with the anniversary of MLK’s “Dream” speech. John Wood, Jr., a disciple of Dr. King, was asked to sign the letter but declined. Their dialogue explores their respective reasons for writing the letter and for declining to sign it.

We present this dialogue not in order to adjudicate John and Andrew’s disagreement, nor in order to cast JFBT as the final arbiter of the meaning of King’s speech. Rather, in the conviction that freedom has a million authors but no single authoritative source, we seek here to model the fearless, pluralistic, good-faith sharing of ideas. We believe that readers will emerge from their encounter with John and Andrew’s divergent perspectives with a deeper understanding both of King’s philosophy and of the highest aspirations of Dream Coalition 828 and its letter.

In what follows we present, first, the letter of Dream Coalition 828, as endorsed by its sixty-five original signers, and second, a dialogue between John Wood, Jr. and Andrew Gutmann about the letter and the appeal it makes to King’s Dream.

Please note that the dialogue does not end here. It continues on Saturday, 8/28 at 2pm ET / 1pm CT / 11am PT in an event jointly sponsored by Braver Angels, Institute for Liberal Values, and Free Black Thought, at which Andrew Gutmann, John Wood, Jr., Civil Rights-era organizer Harry Boyte, writer and artist Angel Eduardo, writer and spokesman for Color Us United Kenny Xu, and FBT’s Erec Smith will convene to discuss the Dream Coalition 828 letter and MLK’s legacy.



John Wood, Jr.

I have been asked by several of my friends to sign the Dream Coalition 828 letter which is being organized by the Institute for Liberal Values in partnership with the Journal of Free Black Thought (a promising new publication). I am honored by these requests, given that they place me in company with friends and esteemed figures who are contributing immense good to American public work and discourse. I work with many of the signatories and sponsoring organizations affiliated with this project. It is great to see you all coming together.

It is a small agony, therefore, that I must convey my concerns about this nobly intended letter. I hope that all of you, and the letter's organizers, will consider what I have to say here.

This letter admirably affirms the need to safeguard the foundational, liberal values of American democracy. These values are truly under threat in our current time, most relevantly (in the context of this letter) by an illiberal activist culture that does not value free speech and the heritage of American idealism in the way that we, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. do and did. This letter is right to identify King as an ally in honoring these core values of the American founding.

But as an individual who has dedicated the bulk of his public life to re-establishing our American commitment to the teachings and the deeper legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. I am saddened to say that I do not believe that this letter advances the renewing of Dr. King's philosophy as a force in the public discourse. Rather this letter, though surely not intended in this way, seems to me to advance a sad, decades old, bipartisan tradition of appropriating the moral power of King's name and legacy in ways that ignore, and at times even contradict, the greater substance of his social perspectives and key elements of his philosophy of nonviolence.

This letter gives pointed illustration of the dangers of illiberalism and makes a positive case for our founding values (items, again, with which I agree). It pairs this analysis with the historical endorsement of Dr. King on the basis of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

One could almost infer that the “I Have a Dream” speech was itself delivered as a defense of these values. But, without diminishing the importance of those several lines that touch favorably upon this heritage, protecting the liberal heritage was not the point of King's speech — except insofar as it was commensurate with a larger project of social justice in American society and the realization of the full equality of “her citizens of color.” This is the project that today's “ideologues” (to quote the letter) style themselves as committed to.

Even in the context of seeking to defend liberal values, and regardless of whether or not Dream Coalition 828 would want to employ a phrase as fraught as "social justice" (though King himself did) in such a piece, would it not have strengthened this letter greatly to have affirmed a commitment to the substance of social justice and the ongoing quest for greater equality of opportunity for America's citizens of color? Regardless of our particular politics, would we not agree that that work continues and that this is a point of commonality between us and our ideological opponents? King died believing that this work remained mostly undone. It strengthens the liberal project to show itself concerned with the ongoing work of social justice even if this work and its language stands distorted by those with whom we disagree.

That is my first criticism. My second, to which the first leads, is more important.

Dr. King's philosophy of nonviolence prescribed particular ways of communicating across chasms of disagreement and social opposition. All nonviolent communication must be grounded in the expression of goodwill towards one's opponents before centering the substance of our differences. This letter, like most political communication, identifies an antagonist (again, “ideologues”) and marshals its criticisms without ever elevating what may be correct (or at least understandable) in the claims and motivations of our opposition. Words such as “hostile,” “contemptuous,” “divisive” and “illiberal” are used to describe the thinking of our opponents. 

That makes sense. But words such as “brotherhood,” “friendship,” and “common ground” never appear in this letter as means of characterizing our moral and social aspirations towards our opposition. Neither does any measure of empathy for their position whatsoever. Had Dr. King written this letter, however, such language and sentiments would have littered some vital portion.

We know this, because (in addition to writing empathetically even about white racists) King wrote at length about the budding Black Power movement of his time which, in many respects, stands as the philosophical ancestor of today's modern culture of “antiracism.”

Black Power, he wrote, was “born from the wounds of despair and disappointment. It is a cry of daily hurt and persistent pain.” He acknowledged Black Power “in its broad and positive meaning” (King was mindful and deeply critical of the phrase's negative connotations) as “a call to black people to amass the political and economic strength to achieve their legitimate goals.” King empathized with their frustrations with the work of nonviolence and expressed agreement with them wherever he could.

This, even though King himself wrote that he had been treated worse by Black radical audiences in public speaking engagements than he had ever been treated by hostile white crowds in similar venues. Still, King's dream of a beloved community contained within it a nonviolent culture of persuasion; one that necessitated speaking to the conscience of one's opponents in full-throated articulation of their dignity, humanity, and of the validity of their point of view wherever validity may be found.

The Dream Coalition 828 letter falls short of this standard, in my estimation.

Now, one may argue that it is not the point of this letter to live up to such a high standard. One may argue that the letter seeks merely to make a defense of liberal principles, an indictment of illiberal ideology, and that it does this well. I would not disagree with that statement. But the moral power at the foundation of this letter is derived from its explicit and central appeal to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “I Have a Dream” speech. 

And yet, were King alive, I am all but certain that he would not sign it.

My love and respect to Dream Coalition 828 and all those involved with this letter. May we advance the cause of liberal democracy and the work of nonviolence together. Our country has great need of it.

Andrew Gutmann

As the primary drafter of the letter, I thought it might be fruitful both to begin a dialogue with you, John, and to respond to some of your concerns. I don’t know if anything I say will change your mind but I’d like you to know where some of the words came from. I highly respect your very thoughtful remarks as well as your scholarship and understanding of Dr. King’s legacy.

The first point I want to make, which you correctly noted, is that the letter does not necessarily reflect Dr. King’s full body of work. The intent of the letter was not to commemorate Dr. King himself, but to commemorate the “I Have a Dream” speech. That is why the inspiration for the letter was the anniversary of the speech (8-28) rather than, for example, Dr. King’s birthday. I believe Dr. King sets a similar example in his speech by quoting (and honoring) the Declaration of Independence, rather than addressing Jefferson’s full body of work.

I want to address your claim that “protecting the liberal heritage was not the point of King’s speech.” I agree that “protecting” was not the key point, but I would argue that the “liberal heritage” is exactly that for which Dr. King was advocating. The distinction is that Dr. King is advocating that the  “liberal heritage” of freedom and equal opportunity be applied for the first time equally and fairly to ALL Americans. Is that not the correct definition of “social justice”? The clear distinction between the classically liberal side and the “ideologue” side is whether we define equality as “equality of opportunity” (the liberal side) or “equality of outcome” (the ideologue side).

Allow me now to address this comment: “would it not have strengthened this letter greatly to have affirmed a commitment to the substance of social justice and the ongoing quest for greater equality of opportunity for America’s citizens of color?” I do believe that the letter strongly advocates for “greater equality of opportunity” but it purposefully did not single out any identity group. In fact, not singling out any identity group is really one of the key themes of the letter, and quite obviously the most famous portion of the “I Have a Dream” speech (“…not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”).

I’d like to move on the issue of nonviolence language. Without question Dr. King advocated for a nonviolent movement. However, I would add that where appropriate, King did use aggressive language, for example, “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists….” I wholeheartedly agree that Dr. King’s sentiment is justified but if his goal was solely non-inflammatory language he could have called those Alabamans, and its governor, misguided or miseducated, or something of that sort. We tried in our letter to use the words you note (“hostile,” ”contemptuous,” “divisive,” and “illiberal”) to describe ideologies rather than the people behind those ideologies. Again, I concede that the language could be toned down but I do very firmly believe that those are accurate words to describe the ideologies we are trying to counter (and it does sound like we are on the same side here!).

I’d also like to comment on the lack of words such as “brotherhood.” We indeed had the words “brotherhood and sisterhood” in the spirit of the original civil rights movement but there was a request from a member of the LBGTQ community to replace that with “kinship.” I would have much preferred to use the terms “brotherhood and sisterhood,” which are so evocative of the civil rights era, but in the spirit of inclusiveness the change was made.

Lastly, I want to address the question of whether Dr. King would sign such a letter. You may very well be correct that he would not. I don’t know. Here I would say a few things. First, to the point I made above, King quotes Jefferson’s words but I doubt Jefferson would sign King’s speech, if asked. I’m not sure if Lincoln would, either (though I hope he would). However, I’d like to make a broader point. One of the issues we are facing in our schools (and I know this personally from my daughter’s schooling as well as from many other parents with whom I’ve spoken) is that King is really no longer taught to our children. His views (and speeches and writings) are viewed as obsolete and archaic at best, racist at worst. To me, this is exactly why we need to highlight his legacy, his words and yes, his dreams. Even if we can’t do so perfectly, we should honor his message. I would much rather do so imperfectly than not at all and let his legacy die, which I think is in danger of happening. You may disagree and I respect that.

As I stated up front, I don’t know if anything I say will change your mind but I thought I owed you the courtesy of explaining the genesis of the letter a bit. I’d be very happy to discuss further if you have any interest. It does sound like we are on the same side philosophically, and one of the things that our side is trying to impress in the court of public opinion is that we are very open to debate, discussion, and respectful disagreement. This could be an interesting way to examine Dr. King’s legacy within the context of the “illiberal” and “divisive” trends we are facing (please excuse the inflammatory language!).

John Wood, Jr.

I really appreciate the outreach here, Andrew. As I said, there was plenty I found to agree with in the letter and I admire your initiative and that of the others involved. 

A few points in response.

You make an interesting point when you mention that King himself cites Jefferson in the “I Have a Dream” speech in a way that could be viewed as analogous to the way the Dream Coalition letter cites King. Neither is seeking to represent the whole substance of the work of the person being cited. The difference, however, is that King didn't make Jefferson's legacy the foundation of the speech. The Dream letter does this much more so with King (granted the distinction between King and the “I Have a Dream” speech itself, when I think of King's Dream I am thinking of King's holistic vision...I'm not sure how easily disentangled the two are).

You bring up the question of whether King was advocating for the liberal heritage. In a real way, yes. He was calling upon America to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” One can rhetorically divorce that from King's direct advocacy for African-Americans. (You could think of King's racial equality activism as sort of the “particular” expression of his more “universal” liberal goal).

I guess where I get held up in this is that King certainly saw himself as being a part of what is sometimes called the “Black Freedom Tradition,” a tradition of advocacy, activism and resistance on behalf of the full enfranchisement of African Americans that one can argue is as old as the African-American community itself. Within that tradition King sees the end point as one in which the races meet each other on the plane of equal dignity, one in which the color of our skin does not determine our worth in society. That’s the universal goal. But overwhelmingly the particulars of the work that occasioned his dream focused in on not only the plight of African Americans, but his personal and cultural identification with this plight. He managed to identify both with Black America and the broader human condition. 

This doesn't necessarily mean that a person can’t seize on the universality of King’s dream without some reference to the particular cause of racial equality. It’s not incoherent to do that. But, to paraphrase, the people this letter is arguing against are themselves arguing that 53 years after the death of King “the negro still is not free.” I suspect King would agree, in many ways. Given how closely his dream is associated with finishing the work of genuine equality for all people but perhaps most urgently for people of color, acknowledging that there is work left to do seems important to me. I grant that that is complicated, in part because many people feel that the work is largely done. 

But to my mind at least—and I think most of my fellow conservatives would agree when they look at it the right way—it is clear that for various reasons (often having more to do with the policies of the left but still connected to a larger history of racism) African Americans are still burdened by obstacles in American society that prevent the full realization of their potential and thus find themselves limited in their enjoyment of the full fruits of freedom and equality.

As to the point you make about nonviolent communication: you're right that King did use the words “vicious racists.” My concern is less about the presence of some provocative language, and more about the absence of language clearly calibrated for signaling goodwill to one’s opponents.

People will sometimes say to me that divisive language can be justified, and that even Jesus turned over the tables in the temple and referred to the Pharisees as “broods of vipers.” But he immediately followed these actions with calls for repentance and assurances of God's love for the purpose of salvation. King mentions vicious racists in Alabama, but the next words suggest an Alabama transformed into one where the white people of Alabama join hands with others together at the table of brotherhood. (Sorry to hear that that word is taboo, by the way. King didn't live to see the battle over pronouns.) Combative language can be fine in the right context. But I think that context is one in which we are clearly calling the people we are criticizing upwards to something higher.

Nonetheless, I concede that you are right to say that, minus the “ideologues” line, the strong language in this letter is aimed at ideas, not persons. I think that is proper.

Finally, I take your point about King not being taught much in classes today, though I don’t have an entirely clear sense of that. King’s legacy is indeed being treated as obsolete or comparatively regressive, and I don’t doubt at all that that is seeping into the schools. However, from my vantage point, we have all but never really taught the substance of King's philosophy as a nation (in part because his standard was so high and so demanding), and that is why it is so easy to push aside what is really only a paper thin version of King to begin with. I see right and left as complicit in this. So I will admit that I am fairly adamant in my principle that we make sure that we take the opportunities available to really convey the message of King in full faithfulness to its substance when we choose to employ his legacy as the ballast for our arguments.

I'd be happy to continue the dialogue on this. I applaud your commitment to good faith dialogue. I agree with you: that is precisely the spirit we must model and that indeed is consistent with the spirit of Dr. King.

Andrew Gutmann

I really appreciate your response. It is a pleasure to engage in thoughtful dialogue, something altogether rare (at least for me) in today’s superficial age of Twitter.

I suppose the fundamental question here is whether the ends justify the means, which of course has no one right answer. The primary intent of the letter was to rally Americans (not necessarily the original signatories who don't need rallying but the broader population) to stand up and fight for the ideals espoused in King’s speech and by extension, the founding principles of our country. Having stronger language, at least in my view, increases the chance that the letter is effective as a rallying cry. I do very strongly believe that these values, as well as King's legacy, are in grave danger and are worth fighting for (peacefully of course). And I reiterate that the strongest criticisms were of ideas, not individuals. Having said that, I certainly understand your criticism that the language may not necessarily have been fully representative of the language used by King in this speech, or more broadly of the language of the civil rights movement. I think reasonable people can differ over whether the stronger (or less representative) language is justified.

I want to make sure to address the letter’s omission of the struggle of people of color, which is obviously the prime motivation and theme of King's speech. This omission was intentional but not meant to be belittling or because it is the “conservative” view that this struggle is over, as you mentioned. The reason it wasn’t addressed was simply to try to minimize the references to race in the letter. Again, the theme of the letter was not the “struggle” but the “dream,” specifically, the dream of a color-blind America. I felt that emphasizing the struggle (whether or not it is ongoing) lessened the effectiveness of the “dream” message by bringing the reader’s attention back to race (the obsession with race, well-meaning or not, being one of the main things we are opposing). But again, your criticism is certainly valid that we are not doing justice to King's speech (or legacy) with this omission.

The last point I shall raise is, I think, the most interesting and perhaps the most controversial. This is the question of who is the rightful protector of King’s legacy (or for that matter the legacy of any historical figure). Should it be the King family (which I know is very protective)? Should it be scholars? The entire Black community for whom King fought and died? Or does someone like King, or Gandhi or Mandela or Lincoln, belong to humanity as a whole? I’d argue the latter, which I think is consistent with King’s fundamental humanist message. I think anyone should have the ability (and some latitude) to use the ideas and words of these great men as long as the intent is broadly consistent with the values these men represent.

I’m very happy to have made your acquaintance and hopefully a new friendship.

Read and sign the Dream Coalition letter.

Register for the joint event on 8/28 at 2pm ET / 1pm CT / 11am PT sponsored by Braver Angels, Institute for Liberal Values, and Free Black Thought, featuring Andrew Gutmann, John Wood, Jr., Harry Boyte, Angel Eduardo, Kenny Xu, and FBT’s Erec Smith.

Dr. King’s family won a copyright lawsuit to ensure that MLK’s 8/28/63 “I Have a Dream” speech is not freely available to the public. You can read unauthorized reproductions of it here and here.

Andrew Gutmann joined the nationwide movement fighting for classical liberal values and against critical race theory in schools when the letter he wrote to the parents of his daughter’s New York City private school, The Brearley School, went viral. Since then, he has become an activist in this movement, writing about the issue, speaking to parents and parent groups, founding Speak Up For Education and co-founding the Institute for Liberal Values. Andrew is also a former investment banker, software engineer, entrepreneur, and author of the book, How To Be an Investment Banker. Twitter: @AndrewGutmann

John Wood Jr. is a national leader for Braver Angels, a former nominee for congress, former Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, a musical artist, and a noted writer and speaker on subjects including racial and political reconciliation. Twitter: @JohnRWoodJr