Soon the memorial to Dr. King will formally be dedicated. After 14 years of struggle, fundraising and a lot of hard work, the Dr. King memorial will officially take its rightful place among the pantheon of other great Americans.
This ceremony was supposed to coincide with the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King's “I Have a Dream” speech, but was delayed by hurricane Irene.
A lot of the public discourse and promotion of the event has focused on the concept of “The Dream” and has ignored what I believe to be the reality of Dr. King.
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If one studies Dr. King's speeches and writings and understands the context of their time, the reality is that Dr. King was not about politics; he was about policy. He was not about elected positions and presidents; he was about people. Dr. King was not about tax breaks for the wealthiest of us; he was about social programs for the least of us. He was not about a war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya. He saw “… war as an enemy of the poor …” and attacked it as such.
The best way to pay tribute to Dr. King and his total sacrifice is to understand what he stood for. Dr. King did give America and the world his ultimate sacrifice; he was not assassinated because of his “Dream”; he was assassinated because of the reality of his vision.
On August 28, 1963, Dr. King, the realist, stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said, “we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.” That was no dream; that was our reality and a clear indictment of the social conditions in America at that time. The most recent Pew Research Center report, based on 2009 data finds, “The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households …” These are the largest disparities since Pew began publishing the data more than 25 years ago. “Moreover, about a third of black (35 percent) … households had zero or negative net worth in 2009, compared with 15 percent of white households.” Forty-eight years, later too many African-Americans continue to languish in the corners of American society.
In the same speech, Dr. King, the strict constructionist, referred to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. He stated, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned,” and added, “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check – a check which has come back marked insufficient funds,” again, a clear indictment of America in 1963. These problems persist today, reflected in the unemployment rates. For African-Americans in many regions of this country, the numbers reflect a tale of two cites: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, African-American joblessness is at 16.2 percent. For black males, it's at 17.5 percent; and for black teens, it's nearly 41 percent.
As disturbing as the unemployment numbers are for African-Americans, they don't begin to tell the whole story. When these numbers are viewed in the context of other factors such as the disparity in median family income, wealth accumulation, disproportionate rates of incarceration and poverty levels, they indicate that an entrenched systemic social policy problem exists for African-Americans that a jobs recovery will not address.
The “Dream” is only relevant when understood in its proper context. Dr. King spoke of the dream in the context of a horrific reality for “Negro's” and the poor. What makes the “Dream” significant is its juxtaposition against America's reality, failures and oppression of its own citizens. Dr. King was correct then and proves to be prophetic today.
It is estimated that America has spent almost in excess of $1.171 trillion fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. As the national debt exceeds $14 trillion and Congress and the White House are debating over which social and/or entitlement programs to cut, Dr. King spoke to the “facile connection” between war and the struggle to eliminate poverty in America. He knew that America would never invest the resources to rehabilitate its poor so long as adventures like Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya drew people, skills and money away like “some demonic suction tube.”
The words of Dr. King's that should resonate within us all are the following:
The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. There are no expenses and no taxes are required for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites … The real cost lies ahead. The stiffening of white resistance is a recognition of that fact. The discount education given Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters. [1968 “Where Do We Go From Here Chaos or Community?”]
As the world pays homage to this great man and the “Dream” that he lived for, don't lose site of the reality that he gave his life to correct.