Easy for Me to Dream: Fifty years after MLK’s speech

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If you’ve been distracted by Miley-gate and rumors of war, it’s possible (but  unlikely) that you missed the fact that tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall as part of the Poor People’s March on Washington.

It’s a remarkable speech. You can take a moment and read the full text from the national archives. There are a few things I notice when I read it. First, the speech is only 5 1/2 pages long but is full of significant content. Second, the phrase “I have a dream” doesn’t appear until near the bottom of page four. He opens that section with the hope that “one day this nation…will live out the true meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal“. He speaks of the table of brotherhood, And, of course, he has that beautiful line about his children being “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” From there on, he’s streaming toward the finish — My Country Tis of Thee, Let Freedom Ring, the Mountains of Georgia and Tennessee and Mississippi. and the big finish with all of God’s Children singing Free at Last.

As a nation, we like those last two pages. They remind us of a dream we all share. It fits with the kind of colorblindness that Stephen Colbert looks for (he doesn’t see color but thinks he’s white). It’s a dream that Glenn Beck likes. It’s a dream that I can embrace (although I have to guiltily admit that far too often I don’t look for content of character soon enough!).

It’s a good dream. It’s an aspiration for us as a society. That’s why 45% of Americans polled think we’ve made “a lot” of progress toward racial equality. Of course, that same polling shows that 32% of black respondents think the same. Perhaps even more telling is to look at the percentage saying that we’ve made only a little progress. Just over 1 in 10 whites report little progress but over 1 in 4 blacks say the same.

It’s not hard to understand that discrepancy when we look at the first four pages of MLK’s speech. He opens with the recognition that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro lives in an island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity“. The nation’s promises, he said, had been given as a promissory note that came back marked “insufficient funds” — an image much too familiar to his listeners. In the middle of page 2, he suggests that “this is the time to make real the promises of democracy“. It is not enough, if mobility involves moving from  “a smaller ghetto to a larger one“. At the top of page 4, he offers a critique that is prophetic in light of changing voting laws: “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

The blog By Their Strange Fruit had a brilliant post Sunday pointing out that too many of the statistics King looked at in 1963 we could find today. The black unemployment rate still runs about twice the white unemployment rate. The black infant mortality rate is twice that of the white rate. Add to that data, the differences in incarceration rates and crime victimization rates, and the difference is still stark 50 years later. Right before he gets to his dream of a better future, MLK speaks to people jailed, beaten, and what he calls “creative suffering”.

it is because of all these injustices that the Dream has such power. Take away the suffering and the Dream becomes a vague hope.

I can make this more personal. I don’t get the first four pages of the speech. I haven’t suffered systemic injustice. I don’t know persecution. I’ve made my share of mistakes in life (like flunking out of college after my freshman year) but that wasn’t a deal breaker. Because i was a white middle class kid with lots of options, getting back to school and eventually earning a PhD was not just possible but likely.

My world makes it hard to celebrate the Dream speech. This was make clear by a remarkable piece on The Daily Show about Race in America. Jessica Williams (who is black) did a focus group with a group of white New Yorkers. Samantha Bee (who is white) interviewed a similar group of blacks. While both interviewers made great light of their situation, the contrast between the two groups was amazing. The vast majority of the black group had been stopped by authorities on the streets of New York. There was one woman in Jessica’s group who thought she’d been frisked — by the TSA. Like those folks talking to Jessica, my life can make me think that life is fair and based on hard work and good intentions.

At the rhetorical turning point of the speech, King recognizes the white citizens on the mall and encouraged his listeners that our freedoms are intricately tied up in each other’s freedom. This sounds like the Kingdom of God to me.

As long as I want to think about some happy time in the future without dealing with the reality of now, nothing much is accomplished. I can dream of sweetness and light and be cut off from the realities that others face. But my true calling is to identify with those for whom life is not fair. I have to enter into the suffering of others to really understand my place in the world. I have to see their fortunes increase, even if mine suffer some, to see the Kingdom Come.

In short, I can’t start my celebration of Dr King’s speech two-thirds of the way through and think I got it. I have to enter into the sufferings of the first four pages and work toward their resolution if I’m ever hoping to “join in that old Negro spiritual and sing Free at Last“.

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