Once again all over America we will reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It is the most remembered speech of this great orator and visionary. I asked my class last week, “Can someone tell another speech Dr. King gave during his time?” No one knew any of his other speeches. One student did mention the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, which pleased me.
I doubt that my class is different from most Americans: everyone knows The Dream speech, few remember the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, a small contingent is aware of “Drum Major Instinct,” “The American Dream,” “Give Us the Ballot’” or any other of King’s speeches.
I think it is because The Dream speech gives us warm feelings, is easy to articulate, and is fun to superficially contemplate. It is easy to attend a diversity breakfast, or a MLK Day Celebration, hold hands at the end, sing “We Shall Overcome” and believe we have fundamentally addressed the “race problem” of America. We have not.
The fact of the matter is that America is divided and becoming more so every day. We are more fractured now than we were in the Civil Rights Era. At least during the time of King, we had a sense of conscious and community. Anglo-Americans and African-Americans realized that the ways things were was wrong.
Nowadays, we don’t say X or Y is wrong. Grounded in our pseudo-sophistication we say, Joe or Jane may act wrongly, but objective wrong and evil doesn’t exist. But in the days of the “movement,” we unequally stated that racism is evil and those who willfully perpetuate racism are also evil.
There was no middle ground: one was either part of the solution or part of the problem. We have transformed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into a black “Casper Milktoast,” and diminished The Dream speech into “let’s just have warm, fuzzy feelings about each other.”
The Dream speech is about dismantling the institutions and structures of oppression: racial, economic, social, political, and spiritual.
The children of former slaveholders must acknowledge that their parents were slaveholders or else holding hands with the children of slaves is meaningless.
We must realize that the social structures that grant privilege and power to the rich are still at play and must be confronted and dismantled, or singing “We Shall Overcome” is nothing more than sound and fury signifying nothing.
Race and economics go hand in hand. The system is keeping all of us in bondage and is pitting us against each other. The rich and powerful understand that the Nazarene was correct, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
The root of the problem is this: If we are ever to become a nation where The Dream will be realized, we need to move beyond dreaming and become actors. Racial disparity is tied to economic disparity.
To address racism, we must confront the economic gulf between the rich and the poor. Dr. King knew this.
Remember the March on Washington was The Poor People’s March on Washington. Dream speech and the Civil Rights Movement was grounded in the black/white binary of the times.
But, I posit that The Dream was larger than just Anglo- and African-Americans. The Dream includes all people of color and all Americans who are trapped in the systemic evil that is destroying our country.
It is time to move beyond dreaming and do the work that is before us. Only then shall dreams become reality. And if God be for us, nothing can stand against us.