Dr. Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech indicted America; there are no two ways about that. Five score separated the United States from Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation and the march on Washington, still arguably touted as the greatest peaceful protest that Washington D.C. has ever hosted. That’s 100 years from the end of slavery to a progress check to measure our country’s sense of equality. The only problem was that this check-up was not unlike when the symptoms of disease are so painful, so festered and infected that not getting a diagnosis means death. By August 28, 1963 America was on the precipice of a cold/hot war and headed toward the quicksand of armed conflict in Vietnam.
But while the current international episodes required the undivided attention of our leaders, a sickness was being addressed by a movement for equality that was equally dire. But this movement was being deemed an elephant in the room and draped in an American flag symbolic of patriotism. Racism and segregation had been a hallmark of American society since before the revolutionary war. “But now of all times?,” America exclaimed. “Communism looms and threatens world domination and we’re less than 20 years removed from the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan that ended World War II. How can these people consider this a matter of urgency. Let’s just be American right now and deal with the warts when this shit storm passes.” By the end of 1963, our head of state had been assassinated, in all likelihood by an American who either thought himself a patriot or worked for those who did. President John F. Kennedy had given his ear to the Civil Rights Movement and its figure head, Dr. King. This marked an unprecedented attention to the inequality and inequity that seemed to under gird the very fabric of America throughout its young life. While as a nation we advertised an identity of “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all,” this banner was being challenged by a formidable contingent of discontented Americans.
Martin Luther King Jr. flipped the script of America making social and economic inequality for blacks a bloodstream issue. He Americanized racism, making it something not on the fringes to be quickly referenced and set aside because most people would never want to hang a black person. On the contrary, King pointed to institutional injustices that had been made concrete by state laws and maintained after slavery was outlawed. He pointed out the contradiction of encouraging black Americans to embrace the Protestant work ethic and American dream while damning them to a perpetual inferior status. According to King, “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” He metaphorically emphasized that, “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and quality.” It was a non-violent but extremely assertive call to action. And it was mitigated by a charge to his own people as well just one paragraph later where he exhorted that, “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
From I have a dream on August 28, 1963 to his final speech I’ve been to the mountaintop on April 3, 1968, the nation underwent groundbreaking changes legislatively. But it was the hearts of Americans that King aspired to affect ultimately as he knew that conceptions and misconceptions are what fuel hate and discrimination. He knew that racial prejudice had laid an anchor in the American psyche, particularly when it came to what we consider an American who is worthy of ALL the rights and privileges that citizenship affords. King’s assassins knew that he was promoting the arrival of a new ideal – fundamental and legal equality and equity.
Being cut down in the prime of life, King wouldn’t live to see the phenomenon of disenfranchised veterans returning home from Vietnam or the advent of gang and drug ridden communities in the urban centers of America. I wonder what he’d think about the proportion of blacks filling up jails juxtaposed with the extraordinary accomplishments of blacks in the U.S. What would his heart have felt about a two-term black president? I’m certain he would have channeled much of his energy in the second half of his life toward illuminating gains and the work ahead.
Prior to his death, his Spirit man and mind could see that the work was only just beginning but Robert F. Kennedy may have said it best when he informed a predominantly black crowd of Dr. King’s death on the night of April 4, 1968 in Indianapolis. He referenced the murder of his own brother the same year that the I have a dream speech was delivered and then quoted the poet Aeschylus saying,
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God
America is still asleep in many ways; the pain of hate persists still while the reality of unprecedented freedom also exists. There have been shifts in our landscape that make overt brutality harder to employ. But perhaps today on this MLK Day we can examine the darkness in our own hearts that impedes a United America. We can start by making sure today isn’t billed a “black holiday.” It’s one of only 10 federally funded national holidays and by default that makes it an American thing!
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country”
– Robert F. Kennedy
And all the people said Amen… But to the non-religious, the Christian faithful, my non-black brothers and sisters, and all other patriots I encourage a new bravery that resembles the bravery of the masses of women and men who marched and died. The road to seeing King’s dream realized is paved with humility and repentance. There is no room for statements like, “They ought to just get over it. That era has passed.” It is savage to discount linkages between our history and our present. Not knowing what to do is not an excuse to not learn. May today prove to be the American holiday it deserves to be and may it spur us to creating new pathways that destroy barriers to equity for blacks, the poor, women and marginalized groups worldwide.