On January 18, 2010, America will celebrate the birth, death, and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We will hear those powerful words, “I Have A Dream.” What has troubled me over the years is how Dr. King, the visionary, prophet and revolutionary’s vision, action and ultimate sacrifice have been hijacked, compromised and relegated to being those of just a dreamer.
Dreamers are safe, docile and non-threatening. People are comfortable with dreamers. Why? To be a dreamer, you must be in a restful state, usually asleep. To cast Dr. King in the light of a dreamer allows people to be convinced that action resulting from clear vision is not necessary. It allows the oppressed to be fooled into being patient and non-revolutionary; yours will come by-and by. It allows Dr. King’s “Dream” – his vision – to remain a dream.
What many fail to realize is that Dr. King was no dreamer. He was a visionary, not some abstract thinker or philosopher. He was a prophet and a true revolutionary.
As I understand it, the original title of the “I Have A Dream” speech was “Normalcy – Never Again.” That title was a real indication of what was to come. It was a clear statement that what had been accepted – what had been normal, i.e., oppression in America, would no longer be tolerated.
Dr. King the realist states, “… 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….” That was no dream; that was the Negro’s reality in 1963 and a clear indictment of the social conditions in America at that time. It continues to be an unfortunate reality for too many children languishing in inner-city schools, parents losing jobs and homes, and those unjustly incarcerated in American jails and prisons.
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…. America has given the Negro people a bad check – a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.” Again, no dream in that statement; that’s a clear indictment of the African-American human condition!
Dr. King the prophet offered hope by saying, “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” He said this because he clearly understood the power of hope. As a minister, he clearly understood the power of faith.
Before Dr. King talks about the dream, he says that we must march ahead. “We cannot turn back…. We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” In light of the January 1, 2009, murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California; the November 25, 2006, murder of Sean Bell; the March 16, 2000, murder of Patrick Dorismond; the February 4, 1999, murder of Amadou Diallo and many others, African-Americans still find themselves victims of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality, racial profiling and Driving While Black – and sometimes Walking While Black.
The “dream” reference actually comes toward the end of the speech. As Dr. King was close to ending his nine-minute delivery, the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, who was seated behind him, said, “Tell them about your dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” At that point, Dr. King went away from his prepared text and said, “… so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” It’s important to understand that he spoke of the dream in the context of the horrific reality for the Negro and the poor that he had just articulated. What makes the “dream” significant is its juxtaposition against America’s reality, failures and oppression of its own citizens – their nightmare!
Today, many see President Obama’s historic accomplishment as evidence of the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, a “post-racial” America. Standing as proof that America has made progress on the long and difficult road toward racial tolerance and acceptance. Progress yes, however, there are still many miles left to travel.
As long as African-American men are incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white men and the incarceration of black women continues to grow at record numbers, the “Dream” will remain a dream. As long as unemployment among African-Americans is more than twice the unemployment rate of white Americans and as long as studies show that a black family’s income is a little more than half that of a similar white family’s income, the “Dream” will remain a dream. As long as African-Americans continue to deal with Driving While Black, excessive high school dropout rates, and imbalances in health care, the “Dream” will remain a dream.
Until every American’s reality reflects the founding principles of this great nation:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The “Dream” for too many in America will remain a dream.