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Zimmerman: MLK's dream of integration is far from reality

"The March on Washington was racially integrated," writes Jonathan ZImmerman, "just like the society it envisioned." Photo Credit: AP

On Aug. 28, 1963, I attended the March on Washington. I don't remember it, but I'm told that I spent most of the day squirming in my stroller. I was 2 years old.

Like the civil rights movement itself, the crowd shaded toward the young side. And, like me, 25 percent of the people who converged on the Mall were white. The March on Washington was racially integrated, in other words, just like the society it envisioned. But that's also the part of the March -- and of its vision -- we often omit from our memory of the event, which will mark its 50th anniversary on Wednesday.

To left-leaning Americans, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech underscores the ongoing inequalities that African-Americans face in employment, education and criminal justice. Meanwhile, people on the right invoke King's hope that his four children would "be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." To conservatives, this comment demonstrates King's "colorblindness" and his alleged aversion to affirmative action. (Never mind that King actually supported "compensatory consideration" for the "handicaps" that African-Americans had suffered, as he wrote in 1964.)

The real problem is that both sides neglect King's rousing call for racial integration, which was the sine qua non of a just society.

That's what Brown v. Board of Education said nine years earlier, when it ruled that segregating black children "may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." And the same vision lay at the heart of King's March on Washington speech.

"I have a dream that one day down in Alabama . . . little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers," King intoned.

He had used the dream metaphor in at least five other speeches. So had earlier generations of African-American freedom fighters, from Frederick Douglass to Langston Hughes. "Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed," Hughes wrote in 1936.

But King's dream was explicitly integrationist, calling on Americans of every color to build a "beautiful symphony of brotherhood" -- and a truly shared nation. That's what thrilled his multiracial audience 50 years ago, turning what had been a rather humdrum address into our most iconic national oration. By the late 1980s, more high school seniors could identify the source of "I have a dream" than the opening words of the Gettysburg Address or the Declaration of Independence.

As King's speech made clear, Americans could never live out the promise of the Declaration of Independence -- that "all men are created equal" -- if they lived apart from one another. That's the only way to understand King's closing crescendo, where he called on Americans of all races to "join hands" and sing an "old Negro spiritual": Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Saluting the thousands of white people attending the march, King said their freedom was "inextricably bound" to his own. "We cannot walk alone," King declared.

But we do. Consider that the number of all-minority census tracts in the United States doubled between 1980 and 2010. Meanwhile, 38 percent of blacks and 43 percent of Latinos attend schools where less than 10 percent of their classmates are white. Indeed, according to a 2009 report published by the University of California, Los Angeles, our schools are more segregated than they were during the civil rights era itself.

I was a "little white boy" -- to quote Martin Luther King -- in 1963, and I grew up mostly apart from blacks. So have my two daughters. If that's OK, King was wrong. But if he was right, as I believe he was, then there's something wrong with too many of us.

Jonathan Zimmerman, author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," teaches history and education at New York University.