The Common Good

46 Years and Counting: What Happened to the Dream?

090828-mlkForty-six years ago, on Aug. 28, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood and gave the "I Have a Dream" speech [full video below]. And even this sentence reveals one of the fundamental struggles that continues in our nation. Most white folks call it the "I Have a Dream" speech. And certainly as pundits prognosticated last year during the Democratic National Convention, they referred to it as the "I Have a Dream" speech. But most older African Americans refer to that day as the "March on Washington," and if they were there or part of organizing it they call it the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."

Few remember or realize that actually A. Phillip Randolph began organizing this march back in 1941. However, even the threat of such a march encouraged President Roosevelt to establish the "Committee on Fair Employment Practice." Because President Roosevelt yielded to this pressure the march in 1941 did not occur.

As the need for voting and civil rights became apparent in the late 1950s and early 1960s, civil rights organizers revived the plan for the march on Washington. It was organized by A. Phillip Randolph. Participating in the organizing were: Whitney Young (National Urban League), James Farmer (Congress of Racial Equality), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), John Lewis (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and Martin Luther King Jr. (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Bayard Rustin assisted in the organization. Rustin was one of the first freedom riders. Sadly, his contribution was always in the background because some feared that, should he take a public role, others' reaction to his homosexuality would deter the movement.

These six spoke during the march, as well as others. John Lewis had a speech that he wanted to give, but others persuaded him to please tone it down. While he honored their request (he was the youngest), he still spoke the truth:

We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation. We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns $5 a week in the home of a family whose total income is $100,000 a year. My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, politicians who build their career on immoral compromise and allow themselves an open forum of political, economic and social exploitation dominate American politics. ... What political leader can stand up and say, "My party is a party of principles"?

Of course, most of us recognize the Rev. Martin Luther King's words:

"I have a dream today ... I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today."

So many eager folks crowded the stadium in Denver a year ago to imagine that somehow we got closer to that dream with the hope of Barack Obama as a president. But even as he referred to the speech of Dr. King, he did not share the more challenging parts of the speech. Obama said,

"'We cannot walk alone,' the preacher cried. 'And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back'" and continued, "America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done."

But this is how Dr. King continued his speech:

We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied ... as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Of course, things have changed in 46 years. "But the more things change, the more they stay the same." This was evident in the nation's reaction to the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. As Bob Herbert wrote in The New York Times,

"The message that has gone out to the public is that powerful African-American leaders like Mr. Gates and President Obama will be very publicly slapped down for speaking up and speaking out about police misbehavior, and that the proper response if you think you are being unfairly targeted by the police because of your race is to chill."

He continued his article with this observation:

"Most whites do not want to hear about racial problems, and President Obama would rather walk through fire than spend his time dealing with them. We're never going to have a serious national conversation about race. So that leaves it up to ordinary black Americans to rant and to rave, to demonstrate and to lobby, to march and confront and to sue and generally do whatever is necessary to stop a continuing and deeply racist criminal justice outrage."

Perhaps the best way that we can honor and remember the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is for us who are white to recognize and fight against all the ways that educational, financial, and medical apartheid continue to permeate our culture.

Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry is a pastor in Michigan and serves as a hospice chaplain.

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