How King’s Dream and Emmett Till’s Death Capture Warring Soul of Our Nation

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

By Kelly Brown Douglas. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and the Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral, is the author of “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.”


It was August 28, 1963, a hot Wednesday afternoon in Washington, D.C.; Martin Luther King, Jr. seized the American imagination with his dream for this nation. He spoke of his vision of a time when little black boys and black girls would be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

August 28 also happens to be the day on which, eight years earlier, one mother’s dream for her child came to a tragic end. In the pre-dawn hours of August 28, 1955, Mamie Till’s 14-year-old son, Emmett Louis Till, was dragged from a relative’s home in Mississippi and “lynched” after being accused of “flirting” with a 22-year-old white woman.

On this August 28, decades after King’s speech and Emmett Till’s lynching, these two events still capture the searing truth of our nation. It is a truth rooted in our nation’s founding.

Mamie Till-Mobley weeps at her son’s funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago. (Chicago Sun-Times/AP Photo)

When America’s Pilgrim and Puritan forebears fled England in search of freedom, they believed themselves descendants of an ancient Anglo-Saxon people who possessed high moral values and an “instinctive love for freedom.” They crossed the Atlantic to build a nation that was politically, culturally true to their “exceptional” Anglo-Saxon heritage. The America they envisioned would be a testament to the sacredness of Anglo-Saxon character and values.

The perpetually vexing problem for the actual nation they founded lies in the reality of its demographics. From its very beginnings America has been an immigrant nation, including migrants — even from Europe — who were not Anglo-Saxon. For those who were white, however, whiteness became the passport into the exceptional space that was America, with the rights and privileges of citizenship. Whatever one’s heritage or one’s values, to be white was to be considered Anglo-Saxon enough.

With this, a culture of white supremacy was born. The myth of Anglo-Saxon, white superiority became inextricably linked to America’s social-political and cultural identity.

W.E.B. Du Bois’ classic 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk” uses the metaphor of “warring souls” to describe the resulting existential dilemma of African Americans. Borrowing from his words, America is a nation with “two thoughts, two un-reconciled strivings, two warring ideas.” The image of a warring soul aptly defines our nation and reflects the contradictions intrinsic to this nation’s founding identity.

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Source: Religion News Service