I first watched Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech in my first college English course. This was a few years before you could whip up whatever you wanted on Youtube, so to watch the speech in its entirety was much more of a special event. I had seen bits and pieces of the speech and was familiar with the gist, but when I sat and watched the entire thing I was mesmerized. And deeply moved.
Martin Luther King Jr. from that point on became one of my heroes. We had to do some research on King for the assignment but I researched beyond the requirements of the class. I found that although he was flawed like any of us, when it came to the issue of civil rights, and the logic and arguments he used to further the civil rights cause, he was right on target. His ‘Dream’ speech reads like a sacred text eloquently defining the struggle and perfectly making the case for liberty to be true for everyone, regardless of race. The speech is flawless in its logic and arguments and of course, King’s delivery of the speech is legendary. It’s arguably the greatest speech ever written as well as spoken – an oratory masterpiece indeed. Records show that when he got to the ‘I have a dream’ section of the speech he actually veered from his prepared speech and started improvising. And if you watch the video you can see he stops looking at his notes through that entire section. Truly inspired. On any issue related to civil rights, racism or anything related to issues regarding the black community, I always go to the text of this speech as my guide*. It always seems to shed true and proper light on any civil rights related issue.
Although America has moved far beyond ’whites only’ drinking fountains, I wonder if King were to miraculously rise from the dead, what he would think of America’s current state of racial affairs.
No doubt he would be elated America had elected a black man to office of President of the United States. He would be proud to see America had made good on its declaration to be a nation founded on recognizing all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. But would he be proud of the fact that this president on more than one occasion deliberately left out the word ‘creator’ when quoting the very declaration that was the cornerstone of King’s demands? The Declaration of Independence was the promissory note written to all Americans that King implored America to make good on, and this promissory note declared those rights unalienable. Unalienable because they were not given by a king or a court or a law, but by a creator, and because of those self-evident truths it only made sense for those rights to be fully realized.
Would he be proud of a nation where his dream that ‘his four children would someday live in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character’ are in fact still judged, but in a different sense? That now because of the color of their skin they are pushed to the front of the line?
Would he think this is the proper way to build character? Would he be proud of schools that once did not allow blacks to enroll now having ‘Black History Month’ and creating a type of separation but in this case a perceptual rather than physical one?
Would he be proud of the fact that although many in the black community have a sense of pride about their ethnicity, in many cases they now consider it a ‘white’ thing to become educated? I think Martin Luther King would be disappointed.
The civil rights struggle is not over, it has just taken different forms. We are not yet free. But if we hold to the ideals based upon the logic and reasoning King put forth in his ‘I have a dream’ speech we may yet get there. But let us stick to the road map King laid out. Let’s make him proud. And let us do whatever necessary to truly become a colorblind society where all can join hands and say, “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last”.
*e.g., I choose not to use the term ‘African-American’ as I think King would find this term counter productive and ultimately hurtful to the black community. I have little doubt his response to this term creeping into our lexicon would be, “I am an American and wish to be known only as an American. My ancestors were from Africa but it is in this great country called America I was born, and it was to the greatness of America and her values I made my case. To label me ‘African’ is to look backward, and my desire is to look forward.”