The State of the Dream
WHAT is the state of the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on that August day now almost four decades in the past? Does his dream yet live, or has it become just a stale phrase, and begun to grate? Has all the lip service finally killed it?
One measure of how far we have come is to read Dr. King's speech anew, as if he were giving it now, and ask some hard questions in his own words:
How far have we come to fulfilling his vision of a nation lifted out of "the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood''?
How determined are we not "to drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred''?
Has the struggle for civil rights been conducted "on the high plane of dignity and discipline''? Or has it degenerated into the "physical violence'' he warned against?
Perhaps most important of all, do we judge others not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character''?
One of the reasons Dr. King's speech has acquired an almost antique sound is because he was demanding justice, not any special privilege. He spoke without rancor or chauvinism, seeking equality rather than preferment. Which is why many of the demands he made some 40 years ago, like equal access to the public schools and the polls, evoked the support of all fair-minded Americans, not just those of one color or one persuasion.
In that sense, the civil rights movement has been a great success story. If you seek Martin Luther King's monument, just look around at American society -- and compare it to the largely segregated one that existed when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and George C. Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door.
No, this isn't the Millennium. We have been climbing history, not Rock Candy Mountain. It would be a lie to say we've reached the promised land -- as big a lie as to say that nothing has changed. Just between us, there is no promised land. Not even in America. Lest we forget, the Declaration of Independence promises not happiness, but only the pursuit of it. It is more a proclamation of what can be than a description of what is.
And yet, to an extent that may have been unimaginable in 1776, or even in 1963, the American promise has been fulfilled. Concerned with today's challenges, as we should be, we forget how much has changed since the American dialogue was being conducted with sit-ins and cattle prods. One of the reasons Dr. King's dream has dimmed for many of us is that so much of it has been realized.
Despite the remarkable continuity of American history, this is a quite different country from the one a young Army officer described on returning home from Vietnam the year Martin Luther King spoke of his dream:
"In 1963 America was torn apart by the forces of racial prejudice, segregation and intolerance. America was being forced to examine itself in the mirror of dreams our founding fathers had left us. It was an ugly, twisted image that could not be avoided and which screamed for change. We were living a lie. And nowhere was the lie more evident than in Birmingham, Alabama. Police dogs, bombs, water cannons, mobs and cattle prods were being used to suppress blacks who were determined to exercise their fundamental rights of assembly and access. ...
"When I returned home that Christmas, I was hit full force with what had been happening in my absence. I was stunned, disheartened and angry. While I had been fighting in Vietnam alongside brave soldiers trying to preserve freedom, in my own land a long-simmering conflict had turned into an open fight in our streets and cities -- a fight that had to be won.''
It was won. And there is no better proof of it than the career of the young Army officer who wrote those words -- Colin Powell, who would go on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and who today finds himself secretary of state and in the midst of another struggle for freedom, security and dignity.
Some things have definitely changed. I've seen 'em change. Jim Crow is as dead as slavery, and the poll tax is gone with the wind. And yet some things have not changed, like the tempting notion that physical force can trump what Martin Luther King called soul force. There are still those who believe they can shout down ideas they don't like, and that some Americans should be more equal than others.
You can tell a lot about which way a country is heading by the heroes it celebrates. And in recent decades, Martin Luther King has become, like Washington and Lincoln, more an official icon than a popular rallying point. He has been succeeded by a variety of more faddish figures -- Jesse Jackson, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, and this season Muhammad Ali and Al Sharpton. The trend is not an encouraging one.
Even in his own time, there were rivals who balked at Martin Luther King's leadership, mocking him as De Lawd. He quoted the Word too often for their taste. His rhetoric was too Southern, too biblical, too tolerant, too inclusive. For he had a secret weapon: the heart of the "enemy.'' And he would not cease appealing to it till he had freed us all.
In the words of the old civil rights anthem, "We are black and white together/We shall not be moved ... .'' Some of us can remember singing those words outside black churches, on the steps of courthouses, at biracial meetings. What we cannot remember now, as we sang "We Shall Overcome,'' is the color of the next person's hand we were holding at the time. It did not matter. The circle was still unbroken then.
For a fleeting time, Martin Luther King managed to lead an uneasy coalition -- black and white together, radical and conservative, Northern firebrands and idealistic Southerners, Lincoln Republicans and Hubert Humphrey Democrats. But the circle would begin to unravel even before that terrible day in Memphis when he was struck down. And no one has been able to succeed him as the single, unifying figure he was.
Not only was he lost, but the ideals Martin Luther King preached grew hazy, uncertain, no longer clear and shimmering. Even the definition of civil rights changed. At times the goal no longer seemed a color-blind society but a color-coded one, complete with racial quotas, entitlements, and preferments. It wasn't any dramatic change in principle that occurred, just a slow draining away of energy and moral clarity.
The country began to think of civil rights like any other special interest or ethnic voting bloc, and for good reason. Now it takes an effort to remember the moral authority and widespread support that civil rights used to invoke, before it became just a label.
This Moses led his people out of Egypt, but it was always unrealistic to think he would get us to a promised land. Eventually the fleshpots were bound to start sounding good when we realized the way to freedom lay through the wilderness. And that we must advance together or not advance at all. He said it: You can't teach anybody anything, not anything of lasting importance anyway, unless you love 'em.
In the end, just as Martin Luther King said, his is a dream rooted in the American dream. He made no distinctions of race or class or creed. Neither must we -- if the dream is to live.