What’s become of Dr. King’s “Dream”?
Of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s many contributions to the public conscience on race relations, the most well-remembered words of his legacy were uttered in his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered August 28, 1973, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. As we reflect today on his life and legacy, we in some sense are asking, “What became of his dream?”.
I am not at school today, because it is a holiday. I am the principal of a rather new and predominantly White Christian school in the heart of Mississippi, the first state mentioned by name by Dr. King in “I Have a Dream” as the state most in need of reform at the time, and not without good cause.
We had a choice when we planned our first school calendar and were deciding what days to observe or not observe, and no laws regulate what holidays have to be taken by private schools. Not all schools of this nature agree on all holidays. So why are we out today?
That question, I believe, can best be answered by exploring the answers to several other questions.
What contribution can I tell our students that Dr. King has made to history, all these years later?
There was a reason for the struggle between those who could no longer live without access to the benefits of the society their efforts were helping to build and maintain versus those who saw the possibility of change as a threat. The struggle, I believe, would inevitably would have led to all-out bloody conflict — a war if you will — in a short period of time. The revolutions of other countries, past and present, testify to this reality.
That the conflict was not ultimately decided by violence is a testament to the voices of Dr. King and others, who reminded those who had the most to gain and lose in the conflict that their cause was right, and that it would be championed by One greater than themselves if they would choose to keep themselves from using the basest of means to pursue it, even while those means were being used against them. Dr. King’s words and actions, his leadership, helped give birth to real change that began in the hearts of people, and lived out eventually in changed laws, policies, practices, and attitudes.
Why was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so successful with his efforts when his antithesis, seemingly more powerful than he was, ultimately failed?
Sam Bowers, founder and Imperial Wizard of the once 10,000 man-strong White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which personified the radical efforts to hold on to the status quo, could easily be seen as the mastermind behind the opposition to Dr. King’s efforts. Why did Dr. King succeed, even posthumously, and Sam Bowers’ cause fail?
Was it because the Source of moral victory weighed on the side of one man’s cause, and against that of the other?
One man’s cause initially represented physical weakness — his people being the numerical minority in the population; political weakness — his followers being disenfranchised and marginalized from choosing the judges and lawmakers who would affect their future; and organizational weakness — his constituents being threatened and made to fear for their efforts to build a coalition that could present itself en mass to demand change.
The other man’s cause represented physical strength – his followers were in the racial majority; political strength – they were often able to act outside the law without penalty or serious attempts at prosecution; and organizational strength – a building, gathering frenzy of men who fomented hatred openly.
But their cause wasn’t right, and wouldn’t prevail.
Dr. King died with the legacy of conducting himself honorably, fighting for freedom and the rights of a disadvantaged people. Sam Bowers died in prison — a despised and defeated bigot, who finally, finally, was required to repay a little of his debt to society for the damage he spearheaded against a cause that was morally superior to his own.
Were all the players in the struggle so obviously right and wrong?
Some of those on the side of the quest for liberty grew impatient with peaceful means and opted to meet violence with violence, as represented by the Black Panthers. Though undoubtedly inevitable in this type struggle, their efforts as represented by history were less effective that those pursued by Dr. King. Their stories, and those of the KKK who chose to fire-bomb homes, murder civil rights workers and intimidate peaceful organizers and protestors have been well told.
Perhaps less well-represented in literature and the media of that day, understandably, are the stories of decent people who saw that the system that they as Whites had grown up with – had in fact inherited – was not to be embraced or defended as a way for two groups of human beings to relate to one another, and that something needed to be done.
Not all of these were joining in the public debate or protest, but more often simply standing for right by doing right — doing right by those in their world who were in need, or just who just wanted an opportunity to access what others already were able to have. Making small decisions, one at a time, and sticking to them.
That was a long time ago, though, right? A lot has changed now, right? The Dream has been realized, right? Indeed, a lot has changed. Today has its own issues to deal with. Perhaps today, race relations are even more complex in the South than in Dr. King’s day. Recent political events have seemed to polarize people over the issue of race more than ever before, as evidenced by one last question.
If race relations have come so far, why is there so much opposition to a Black President?
Recently our country had a national election to fill its highest office, and shortly thereafter, our local county had a run-off election to fill a vacated sheriff’s position. I supported the White candidate for President of the United States, and the Black candidate for sheriff. Why?
Perhaps because of my own dream: that one day race will not be suspected as the primary reason a member of the majority group chooses to disagree with a member of a minority group. I continue to be surprised when that is not the case, because I expect that minority members’ confidence in themselves as deep-thinking and resourceful human beings will allow them to embrace opposition to their ideas or actions as a source of challenge to do more, reach deeper for answers in themselves and strive harder to reach new heights. Why? Because they are inferior? No, because they are equal. This is what opposition does for any thinking person, any in whom is the potential for greatness. Only the weak of heart and mind see opposition — in the form of discourse with the desire for truth at its heart — as a threat or as a racial issue.
I didn’t oppose President Obama’s election or re-election because he is African-American. I opposed him because of his policies and actions. But my saying that is considered suspect among many people, no doubt even some I count as friends. I didn’t support “Sarge” (Chris Sargent) for sheriff out of some irrelevant desire to change the racial make-up of the law enforcement leadership of our county. I voted for him because when I met him, I was impressed by what he had to say about how he would run the sheriff’s office (planned policies), and because he was recommended by others who’d worked with and observed him (past actions) and altogether I believed he was the best man for the job.
Isn’t this what Dr. King dreamed of?
So what are your thoughts? Are these ideas that resonate with you, or do you envision the state of race relations in the today’s South to be of a totally different nature? I’d love to hear what you think. Dialogue is the means to growth of a civilized culture.
I’ve been on a blogging hiatus for several weeks, in order to focus on a bigger writing project, but am glad to return sharing thoughts regularly related to life in what I like to call the Real South, the one we live in right now.