It is a stark metaphor, an accusation articulated in bluntly economic terms. The Declaration of Independence implied, and later the Emancipation Proclamation promised, meaningful freedom to African Americans. But the promise was never fulfilled. “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’ ” King said.
This part of the speech has been mostly forgotten, swamped in collective memory by the soaring rhetoric of King’s peroration. When initial renderings for the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial were first unveiled, they included a prominent place for the promissory-note metaphor, but as the project went forward the quotation was deemed “too confrontational” and dropped from the final design.
What is best remembered from the Dream speech is, in fact, not original to it. The thrilling incantation, the cries of “let freedom ring,” the litany of place names (the snowcapped Rockies, the molehills of Mississippi), the lines borrowed from the biblical books of Amos and Isaiah, the quotations from spirituals and patriotic songs — none of this material was original to the speech King gave on the Mall. Most of it was recycled, an impromptu decision by King to reuse some of the best applause lines he had tested in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama and, only weeks earlier, in Detroit.
But the metaphor of the promissory note, which occurs rarely in King’s other speeches and writing, was peculiar to his Washington speech, and it was an essential part of his argument. That it is forgotten speaks volumes about how King has been processed in the national memory, about the powerful amnesia that has allowed King to be sanctified as an anodyne saint of racial harmony, despite his radical message and his evolution, after the 1963 March on Washington, into a vigorous critic of militarism, materialism and capitalism. With the opening of a new monument to King on the nation’s most symbolically significant land, King has been burnished into something almost unrecognizable, and the promissory note has disappeared from the record.
A common turn of phrase
The metaphor of a check or promissory note was standard in political discourse at the time. Less than a month before King’s speech, a writer for Newsweek used a similar image, noting that African Americans had “demanded payment of the
century-old promissory note called the Emancipation Proclamation.” King’s speech explicitly invoked the memory of Abraham Lincoln, who had used the idea of debt and payment in his second inaugural address. If the Civil War continues, said Lincoln, “until all the wealth piled up by the bondman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” then that was God’s will. Other civil rights leaders had used similar language, often with apocalyptic overtones. The same summer as the March on Washington, Malcolm X had warned, “A bill is owed to us and must be collected.” Scholar Eric J. Sundquist points out that Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” says, “It’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it.”