Friday, January 7, 2011

The Enduring Work of an Enduring Dream

Normally, in CitySquare's Urban Engagement Book Club, Randy Mayeux reviews a non-fiction book that in some way relates to the work, or the values of our organization. This past Thursday was a special treat as, in honor of the upcoming Martin Luther King Day holiday, we took a refreshing look at King's famous 'I Have a Dream' speech.

Regarded by many as one of the best speeches (if not the best speech) of the 20th century (I personally rank it second to only Lincoln's second inaugural address), the speech gives voice to the aspirations of a people and a country struggling to realize the ideals of democracy as set forth in the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

We looked at the classic speech from any number of angles - the masterful use of repetition, the imagery ('we come here to cash a check...we refuse to believe the vaults of justice is bankrupt'), to soaring rhetoric of his conclusion.

But the there are two aspects of the speech that have come to particularly resonate with me.

One is the fact that over the years, portions of the speech have been 'coopted' by interests which seek to justify an ideology which naively or conveniently believes that the day when all people are judged by the 'content of their character and not the color of their skin' has arrived. That's only true if you believe that the barriers to the fulfillment of King's dream were satisfied with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Bills. In other words, the only problems to be addressed were access to the ballot box and removal of the most obvious signs of segregation.

The clause in which King begins to cast the his Utopian vision, comes after he outlines conditions that include and go beyond the more familiar signs of inequality:

"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 our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot 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 self-hood 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."

The realization of the dream is both inclusive of and the consequence of address of these issues. It means oppressive state sanctioned violence that not only includes physical violence but the gross over representation of minorities and the poor in our country's criminal justice system. It not only includes the ability to find lodging in hotels, but it also the means of affording such recreation - in other words, jobs. It means working intentionally to put an end to the achievement gap in education between white children and black children, a continuation of the theft of 'self-hood' and dignity that ultimately denies them a future. And it means a real politics that makes voting meaningful and no longer moves the goal posts as minorities appear to gain power.

Equality and justice are not 'once and for all' gains, achieved by legislative remedy. These are the persistent objectives of a society which understands its collective self interest and survival to be rooted in how it values every person. We don't 'achieve' it. We continually work to realize it and diligently work to pursue it an enduring value.

Another part of the speech, with which I have become re-acquainted, is King's mention of 'interposition and nullification'...

"I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" --"

It's incredibly interesting to me, that there are those who have come to demonize supporters of everything from health care reform, to the bailout of the auto industry, to the extension of unemployment benefits as 'socialists'. The branding is intended to conjure up images of threats to American life and culture so dangerous as to label those who believe in them unpatriotic and un-American.

Yet, some of these same people try and innocently bring up the legislative tactic of 'nullification' of such programs and policies, clearly more helpful to low-income people, but stereotypically associated with minorities. And they do so without ever thinking that the very word conjures up similar, if not more loathsome images, of politicians who sought to 'nullify' any legislation they disagreed with which recognized or protected the rights of black people. The same is true of the doctrine of 'states rights' and, if you are from Texas, language that speaks wistfully of 'succession'.

It's interesting that this is a part of the speech that some conservatives never get around to quoting...

"Of course, these are people who reject any ideological heritage with the racists of 45-50+ years ago. But they have no problem throwing those who believe differently than they into a cauldron of boiling fear mongering and suspicion, by labeling their political beliefs as 'socialism'."

Thinking of these two aspects of the King's masterpiece, reminds me why some of us continue to revere it, to this day. Not because it was his best speech (I'm more partial to his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech), but because it is somewhat of a measuring stick. The version this speech given only 47 years ago, is a reminder that we've not come far enough, and haven't worked nearly hard enough...any of call this dream realized.

This is an enduring dream, because it calls on us all to engage in enduring work.

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