Tag: Martin Luther King Jr.

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“.

A Single Shade of Grey: Thinking about Race

The seven days since the George Zimmerman verdict have been characterized by frequent discussions of criminal justice and race. Surprisingly, some of the most analytical pieces I’ve read this week showed up on Facebook. Thanks to friends Chris Attaway, Geoffrey Mason-Gordon, and T.C. Moore for not only trying to explore a complicated issue while keeping their friends who prefer simple answers. All three forced me to clarify some of my own sociological perspectives. I’m using this space to attempt to coordinate those various thoughts.

The title of today’s post comes from comments made by Dr. Reece J. McGee, distinguished professor of sociology and Master Teacher at Purdue. I had the pure joy of being Reece’s TA for four semesters. Reece’s Intro to Sociology class had about 600 students per section, but it was still a warm and engaging space. Every semester, he would make the startling claim that he could solve the problem of racism is two generations. Simply adopt a policy that said that you could marry whomever you wanted, but if you wanted to have children you had to marry someone of another race. In two generations, he argued, the gene-pool would be so confused that race wouldn’t have the same explanatory power it currently has.

I always loved the argument, but now I’m not as optimistic. It’s not just that people draw cues from skin color. It’s that they seem somehow insistent on seeing things in black and white. Taking an issue as complex and emotional as race and converting it to talking points is absurd. The arguments only work if you completely abstract them from real life or if you generalize from single egregious cases. We seem to have a national fascination with polarizing the argument.

It is true that society is moving in the direction Reece was describing, even without a formal policy. The Census department reported in May that the percentage of marriages that were interracial or interethnic grew from 7% to 10% during the first decade of the 21st century. The story goes on to report that the percentage of unmarried couples who are interracial/interethnic now constitute 18% of all unmarried couples. These are significant steps in moving us toward a post-racial society.

And yet.

And yet we’re reminded that we still live in a society where the children of those marriages will still be seen as racially identified. Barack Obama is the first president with African ancestry (as far as we know), but we don’t often talk about him as a mixed race president of Kansas stock who grew up in multicultural Hawaii. He’s the First Black President. One of the interesting side-stories in Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit book is his discovery that his mixed race great-grandfather had declared himself white when moving from Louisiana to Detroit.

In a social psychological sense, Obama IS black and Charlie’s ancestor IS white. The treatment they received within the broader society was based on their physical markers. It’s how Obama recounted being watched by department store security guards (or even, in this amazing piece, mistaken for the help!). It’s how Charlie’s ancestor avoided the significant mortgage covenants and apprenticeship barriers that allowed to raise his family in a home he built in middle-class Detroit.

In his remarks yesterday, Obama echoed Martin Luther King’s “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” line. I always tell my students that you have to take the “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety. The first half of the speech outlines the injustice that social institutions had foisted on blacks and talks of how the promise of “all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights” had been sent back marked “insufficient funds“. Then the second half holds out The Dream. We don’t get to choose half the speech. It’s not some smorgasbord of picking up ideas we like. We mix the black and white perspective and come up with a single shade of grey.

What does grey mean in the Martin-Zimmerman situation? It means that Zimmerman’s perception of what Martin may have been up to was impacted by the meme of a young black man after hours. It means that Martin believed that fighting back was the  option he chose in light of a general pattern of racial profiling (it’s why he didn’t go quietly). It means that Zimmerman’s perception of threat was high even before the altercation began. It means that Martin could be an aggressor AND a victim at the same time.

Acknowledging Grey means that we embrace the complexity that surround race in America. Comments like “what about the murder rate in Chicago?” miss the point. Accusing people of outright bigotry is unfounded. But there are issues related to black on black violence and drug trafficking. Not all residents of the inner-city are connected to those issues, however. My Detroit area students attest to that. So do many of the people described in LeDuff’s Detroit. Not all people concerned about affirmative action are racists. Some simply hold a high view of equality as defined in the 14th amendment.

We must learn to see the complexity that is present all around us. This is somehow hard for cable news, being so committed to black and white, sound bite, 140 character answers. (The twitter feeds following the president’s remarks were indicative as were the op-ed pieces). That’s where I find the blogosphere helpful. I keep finding people who are asking hard questions while grappling with grey-ness.

Christena Cleveland’s reflections in Christianity Today does a wonderful job of affirming differing perceptions while calling on those who experience the privilege of structural advantage to find solidarity with those who lack that same privilege. It is an expression of the Kenosis principle in Philippians 2.

Jonathan Merritt wrote on Thursday that Christians have a special role to play. He ended with this:

Post-racial America is not yet a reality, but I believe it is possible. May we—both Americans in general and Christians specifically—redouble our efforts to work towards justice and reconciliation. While the pundits and politicians will continue to take advantage of this controversy, let’s instead have serious conversations about education, the criminal justice system, racial profiling, voting rights, and civil discourse. Let us press on toward the world we desire but have not yet achieved.

The story of race in America has chapters about structural barriers of the past that stretch their tentacles into the present. It has chapters about personal tragedy and bad choices. It has chapters about overcoming obstacles. It has chapters about criminal laws that treat inner-city drug use differently than suburban drug use. It has chapters about an economics that favors the suburbs over the cities. It has chapters about generations of dependency.

If you put all these chapters in a blender and turn in on, what comes out is grey. Our only way toward a post-racial society is to embrace that reality and then work as if we really believe Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is decorated in hues of grey.