Commemorative vision: how to use the past to transform the present and future

It is August 28, 1963. A crowd of 200000 people gathers in the National Mall in Washington DC. Black and white faces choke the avenues down either side of the Reflecting Pool. Their numbers stretch all the way to the Capitol Building.

Before them is the Lincoln Memorial, where Abraham Lincoln studies them from his giant chair. A man stands at a microphone, dwarfed by the statue behind him. The civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King is ready to deliver his speech.

The people have come to the US capitol by buses, trains, cars, and planes. Their hearts are full of hope, their minds full of memories of recent struggles. They have known discrimination, inequality, and injustice. Canvas the crowd and you’d hear thousands of stories of persecution, forced eviction, police brutality, murder and lynching. You’d hear the name Rosa Parks, who eight years before had refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. You’d hear stories of boycotts, sit-ins, angry demonstrations and non-violent protests.

The crowd simmers with anger and frustration. Will this day mark a grand step forward in the struggle for civil rights? Or is it the case, as Malcolm X says, that the organizers have compromised too much by allowing white folks to participate?

The crowd has come to Washington DC fired by the momentum of the Civil Rights movement, which is not yet a decade old. They reflect on this struggle and what it has achieved as Martin Luther King steps up to the microphone.

Dr King takes a deep breath, as if drawing back the string of a bow. He has never addressed a crowd of this size, in a moment of such importance. He looks down the Mall towards the Capitol Building. Yes, he thinks – this is my time.

He tenses the string and releases it. The arrow of vision flies into the future.

‘Four score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation’.

It is an epic start. Instead of invoking the present struggle, reinforcing in the minds of those gathered the memory of the movement that they are presently engaged in, King has them remember a different struggle: the struggle by Lincoln’s Republican Party to free the American slaves. In this gesture, King invites those gathered – black and white – to reflect on a common source of empowerment: the fact that one hundred years before, the United States granted freedom and equality to all its citizens. Yet as people’s breasts swell with patriotic pride, King brings them back to earth. His next line speaks of present day reality.

‘But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. … And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition’.

In the space of two paragraphs, King has projected for his audience a visionary sense of what it means to exist in the present. The people in the crowd have inherited the empowering promise of freedom, but today, this promise is denied them. How can they forge ahead? How can they overcome this ‘shameful condition’ – a condition that affects all of them as Americans?

Dr King speaks. The arrow of vision flies into the future, and the hearts and minds of those gathered in the Mall fly after it.

‘I have a dream’, King says – a dream that is ‘rooted in the American dream’.

‘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!

King’s speech is a brilliant example of commemorative vision. Commemorative vision involves reframing people’s perspective on, and expectations of, the present moment by taking the memory of a common source of empowerment and projecting it differently. King’s dream concerned the future of the Civil Rights movement, yet it didn’t simply tap the energy of that movement, it’s anger, resilience, its practical and symbolic achievements. King reached back one hundred years to find an important source of empowerment that everyone contributing to the movement could take pride in. The Emancipation Proclamation was a historical precedent that legitimated the struggle and that warranted an optimistic vision of its success. Seizing on this historical touchstone, King projected a bold vision of the possible future, offering an inspiring map for thought and action.

Martin Luther King transfigured the historical moment. It is not that he predicted the future. By drawing on a common memory, he projected a roadmap linking the past to the future, which would serve as a guide for those who continued the struggle, even after his death.

By refiguring elements of the past, visionary leaders make the present a place of opportunity. This is what King did in his speech at the National Mall. This is why we remember him as one of the great leaders of history.