Last year, on this commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I wrote my thoughts on the State of the Dream, all those years later. I’d briefly like to revisit that idea.
Our country in general enjoys a liberty that was purchased by the blood of others. From the American Revolution to the Greatest Generation to the brave men and women sacrificing to keep us free from radical Islamists today, their work has carved out a country where we have the liberty to agree or disagree, to raise our families in the faith of our choice, to push and fight and work and sweat and gain more than we ever thought we could have — because of freedom purchased with blood.
Dr. King fought persecution and stood for the ideals of liberty for an oppressed people, that he eventually gave his life fighting to achieve. I credit him and others like him with the fact that years ago the disgusting physical signs of senseless separation have been obliterated from society, and justly so. We have to ask ourselves the question, though “Did the heirs of the dream get all he lived and died to attain?”
If breaking the chains that seemed so permanent when he marched and preached and addressed the nation so eloquently was what he came to do, then the answer would be a resounding “yes”. Institutional prejudice is simply not tolerated in this day and time, where in his day it was insisted upon and maintained. If changing the willingness of the majority to treat the minority with respect where it’s due was part of it, the answer still would be a “yes”. Living right in the heart of Mississippi, “Yes, sir” is dispensed where appropriate regardless of race, though in my childhood it was certainly not so.
I recently re-read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, set in England and France during the period of the bloody French Revolution. It is not easy reading, and certainly not for the faint of heart or the immature, but I recommend it as a classic that has endured for a reason. A bitterly repressed and cruelly abused underclass of people, who were seen to exist solely for the sake of the aristocrats, as slaves were once viewed in this country, had no hope. They weren’t technically “owned”, but may as well have been for all the options they had on improving their situation. They had no political voice or political power whatsoever. The rulers of their day were unable to see that the boiling point for that “underclass” of people was near, until the pent-up rage exploded and brought down the King of France and all the established religious and political society in cruel fashion.
I have often credited Dr. King and others who insisted on nonviolent approaches to the inequalities of his day with avoiding a bloody civil war or conflict in our country. Heaven knows it was bloody enough as it was, but what could have been did not materialize. In that sense, the excesses of a revolution were avoided. But there is an aspect of the French Revolution that was captured by Dickens, through his character Madam Defarge, that bears looking at. Once the threats of real opposition to the underclass had been annihilated by the revolutionaries through summary executions at the guillotine, the architects of the overthrow seemed to have no further plan than continued annihilation. Rather than finding a place to rebuild and start to support meaningful advancements for those they were supposed to fight for, they began to arrest others for the slightest “crime” (passing many laws and making the appearance of any dissent to their cause punishable by heinous death). When Madame Defarge, the prime mover in Dickens’ account of the Revolution, is questioned by her husband about “a place to stop”, Madame Defarge’s response is, “Tell Wind and Fire where to stop, but don’t tell me.” Though the story reveals how her history of wrong suffered had built the bitterness up in her soul, the result, in the story and of stories like hers in the reality, was devastation that healed nothing.
History bears out that the French Revolution began as something perhaps unavoidable under the circumstances, but snowballed into the Reign of Terror, where people who were not prepared to govern no longer knew what to do with themselves after seizing control, except to continue to exact judgement on the perceived persecution that long ago had been stamped out. I realize any comparisons are minimal and potentially confounding to my point, but to my personal observation, the real forces that once kept a Black man or woman with a true will to advance from prospering, as someone of another race with that same will could do, “died off” a long time ago (don’t tell Oprah — she wouldn’t understand). The greater threat to liberty and prosperity for Black men and women I see is the perceived injustice fomented by a sector that simply doesn’t know what to do with itself if it can’t find a White majority enemy to name as the bad guy. I don’t believe Dr. King gave his life for that.
I remember when I first read in school that had Abraham Lincoln been allowed to live and oversee the aftermath of the Civil War, the Reconstruction lunacy would not have occurred. His desire was for a peaceful, orderly reconciliation that brought healing and growth to the nation. Perhaps if Dr. King had been allowed to live and continue to speak into the gains made by the Civil Rights Act and similar successes, the true goal of his efforts — that an equal opportunity for advancement would exist, wherein people of all races were viewed for their abilities and achievements rather than the color of their skin — would have been championed, rather than what we have swirling around those actualities today: voices that continue to whisper “you’re not really free as long as anyone else has more than you do, however honestly they got it.”
I cannot say what I perceive in the world today, particularly in the political arena, more eloquently than Louisiana Senator Elbert Guillory did when explaining his switch of political parties within his state. I implore you to hear what he has to say. I am not writing here about parties, because I see faults in all the political system, but one party has tended to hawk the idea that meaningful change sans permanent social programs is a blow to Black Americans. I agree with the good Senator’s take on that. How can I view you as a capable, intelligent, responsible citizen, while simultaneously making long-term plans to feed and house you because I do not anticipate your becoming able to do so for yourself? That is not the respect Dr. King sought.
So how are the heirs of the dream faring? Worsening social climates in the last few years, that inadvertently (or otherwise) encourage Black on White violent crimes and make young Black men and women think they are gaining something by doing so is a reproach to Dr. King’s legacy. Refusing to discuss the idea that free enterprise is a better way out of poverty than welfare would disgust him, I believe.
Nipping at one another over any disparaging remark made in public toward a Black person shuts down public dialogue, and shouts the message, “There is nothing about me that could be the basis of your disagreeing with me other than my race — in other words, I have no thoughts, no ideas, no personal habits or traits that could possibly spark your disagreement; there is nothing of substance to me other than the color of my skin.” I don’t believe that is the case for one second, but when certain voices who claim to represent the Black community lash out over any disagreement as though it must be racially motivated, they are in effect saying that very thing. I can disagree with you on your dialogue and your ideas because that is what intelligent, intellectual people do: They dialogue, find areas of agreement and sort through their areas of disagreement. They don’t smile and overlook what they don’t agree with for risk of offending the other party, for by doing so they would be dubbing that personal incapable of rational argument.
So, final thoughts? I think, sadly, it is quite possible that there was an arc of change sparked by Dr. King’s legacy that is now trending downward, because the very tools that some used to help press for change could not be abandoned when change came. Senator Guillory says it’s because one group actually seeks to control another, but it’s not the group you think. I pray there can be true change, but it comes with truly seeking the One who made us all, and truly submitting to His laws that are “of no respect of persons.”