By D. L. Patterson
No one would deny that two powerful and timeless speeches given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. probably represent the most remembered public orations ever given by the civil rights and human rights legend. “I Have a Dream” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” have stirred emotions and riveted listeners for more than a half century.
However, one of the most powerful soliloquies King ever uttered may have been one of his shortest. In a 2018 article by Washington Week, it is not even listed in the top five of the most memorable MLK speeches. His speech, “We’re coming to get our check,” is a frequently overlooked narrative that concisely describes how the United States government purposefully defrauded Black people out of property they deserved and gave that land to white immigrants. That practice continues to amplify the huge fiscal divide that separates white and Black Americans to this day. While this is in no way meant to understate the atrocities our government committed against Native Americans, Black people were enslaved here for more than two centuries. I reference and expound on this speech in my book, “The First 400, the color of profit, persecution, and perseverance,”
King said to those in attendance, “At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give them land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.”
This discourse presented to a very small contingent in a Black church in rural Mississippi just weeks before he was killed in 1968 by an assassin’s bullet, painted a very concise picture of the purposeful actions by our own government to dismiss the enormous contributions and tribulations of millions of Blacks during nearly 250 years of slavery. Instead the government awarded approximately 270 million acres of free land in total to poor immigrant whites who were just setting foot on American soil and had invested nothing in building this country’s wealth. This is but one of a plethora of purposeful injustices wrought against Black people who have never actually been considered human by a country, who has for decades via its Pledge of Allegiance disingenuously proclaimed that it is “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all.”
While growing up here in Cleveland’s Hough community in the 1960’s, I can vividly remember reciting the pledge at Hough Elementary, a school demolished decades ago that used to sit right on the corner of Crawford Road and Hough Avenue. Although this ritual was repeated every morning before class, my classmates and I were totally oblivious to the deceptive words that were not meant to apply to people who looked like us.
However, I choose to remain cautiously optimistic. Perhaps as we move closer to this country being more cognizant of the injustices done to Black people that need to be both acknowledged and redressed, the next generation of school age children may by virtue of that progression actually get to experience a glimpse of what a truly “United” States of America looks like.