On May 8, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. granted an interview to veteran NBC News correspondent Sander Vanocur and made it clear that his famous dream had turned into a nightmare.
The interview happened just three-and-a-half years after King’s powerful “Normalcy, Never Again” sermon—more commonly known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, thanks to King’s now iconic improvisations. His dear friend gospel singer Mahalia Jackson exhorted him to “tell them about the dream, Martin!”
And he did.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my 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.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
But three-and-a-half years later, he realized that “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism” are cornerstones of the United States. And he realized that the U.S. government is the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Make no mistake: When King told us about his dream, he understood the “fierce urgency of now,” but it took him a few more years to understand how deeply this nation lies to itself about the content of its character.
When King told us about his dream, he understood that we “could never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horror of police brutality,” but it took him a few more years to understand that the so-called white working class had perverted and distorted the “drum major instinct,” living day to day with this “false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white.”
When King told us about his dream, he knew that the Deep South was overrun with rabid racists, but it would take him a few more years to organize the Poor People’s Campaign and let the powers that be in Washington, D.C., know that “we’re coming to get our check.”
When King told us about his dream, he already understood that white liberals pushed the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” but it took him a few more years to understand what Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) taught us in the 1964 speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”: “I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
This is the King who told us that riots were the voices of the unheard. This is the King who was assassinated by the state because he was the “most dangerous Negro in America.”
So, today, as we continue to reclaim Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, I’ve transcribed a portion of his 1967 interview with Sander Vanocur.
Dr. King—our Dr. King—once again getting the language right.
I must confess that that dream that I had that day has in many points turned into a nightmare. Now I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future. But I’ve had to analyze many things over the last few years and I would say over the last few months.
I’ve gone through a lot of soul-searching and agonizing moments. And I’ve come to see that we have many more difficulties ahead and some of the old optimism was a little superficial and now it must be tempered with a solid realism. And I think the realistic fact is that we still have a long, long way to go and we are involved in a war on Asian soil, which if not checked and stopped, can poison the very soul of our nation.
I’m not going to say that all of our problems will be solved if the war in Vietnam is ended, but I do say that the war makes it infinitely more difficult to deal with these problems.
When a nation becomes obsessed with the guns of war, it loses it social perspective and programs of social uplift suffer. This is just a fact of history, so that we do face many more difficulties as a result of the war. It’s much more difficult to really arouse a conscience during a time of war. That is something about a war like this that makes people insensitive. It dulls the conscience. It strengthens the forces of reaction. And it brings into being bitterness and hatred and violence.
I think the biggest problem now is we got our gains over the last 12 years at bargain rates, so to speak. It didn’t cost the nation anything. In fact, it helped the economic side of the nation to integrate lunch counters and public accommodations. It didn’t cost the nation anything to get the right to vote established. Now, we’re confronting issues that cannot be solved without costing the nation billions of dollars. Now I think this is where we’re getting our greatest resistance. They may put it on many other things, but we can’t get rid of slums and poverty without it costing the nation something.
I feel that nonviolence is really the only way that we can follow, cause violence is just so self-defeating. A riot ends up creating many more problems for the Negro community than it solves. You can through violence burn down a building, but you can’t establish justice. You can murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder through violence. You can murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. And what we’re trying to get rid of is hate and injustice and all of these other things that continue the long night of man’s inhumanity to man.