One of the most beautiful and well written things that you will ever read is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. I have read it so many times and, having used it my writing classes over the years, I think it and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” stand as the finest oratory in American history.
The problem is the “history” part in this equation because many people assume that the speech is over and, because we have Mr. Obama in the White House, that its mission was accomplished. The truth is that the speech is a living thing, one that is as pertinent in 2016 as it was in 1963. In fact, if you read it carefully, many of the points Dr. King makes could be seen as still needing to be addressed today.
Just last week Mr. Obama gave his final State of the Union address. The pundits’ tails were wagging afterwards – too short, too positive, too concerned with the president’s legacy rather than important policies and issues. But were they not being too critical of a man in his eighth and final year in office? One who has to look forward to his own inevitable departure as well as what will come after him?
My father always used to say this about presidents: “I may not have voted for him, but now he is my president.” The most important word in that sentence always seemed to be “my” when I heard him say it. What he was teaching me was that there is a process in this country, and when someone is elected then that partisan stuff should be subsumed by what is good for the nation. The way I see it today, nothing could be further from the truth.
Consider these words from Dr. King’s speech:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Lest we forget Dr. King was a Baptist minister, his words invoke a fiery sermon as well as a call for political and social change. The fact that he uses the word “creed” to describe words from the Declaration of Independence clearly indicates how much he revered that document, sort of as a scripture that was a blueprint for the way America should be.
Sadly, America of 1963 was not a place for equity for all, and here in 2016 we must recognize that is still the case in many ways. Yes, our president is black, but he has had to endure criticism, denigration, and an onslaught of opposition from Congress that seems to be unprecedented. In my lifetime I have never seen a president treated so poorly by people who have obviously forgotten what Dr. King meant when he said:
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.
Mr. Obama has shown remarkable resiliency and grace under pressure, denoting the sturdy quality of his presidential timber. He has most definitely tried to take us out of war into peace, but the turmoil in the world, especially the emergence of ISIS, has made this almost impossible. Despite many things well out of his control, he is blamed for them anyway, especially by those who forget that George W. Bush got our country into two wars that Mr. Obama inherited.
We would all like to think that we are at that time and place from Dr. King’s dream, one where “content of character” would surely mean more than skin color; however, we still seem to be faced with discrimination in America, most notably now of Muslims and especially the refugees fleeing Syria’s brutal civil war.
To remind us of how far we yet have to go we need only to look at the recent Oscar nominations that clearly indicate how white and male Hollywood still must be. In a year when there were strong performances by black actors such as Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation and Will Smith in Concussion, it is amazing that not one of them was nominated. Actress Jada Pinkett Smith (Will’s wife) has suggested black entertainers boycott this year’s Oscar ceremony as a way to protest the academy’s oversight. Obviously, she is taking a page from Dr. King’s book in knowing that such a boycott will have an impact.
Movies are such an integral part of American life – they reflect the times and realities of the country in which we live. American films also define the country for people all around the world, and millions of people watch the Oscars’ award ceremony, so it is powerful qualifier of where we stand in America of 2016. When the world sees and hears about no black actors or film securing a nomination, what does that tell people everywhere about country?
To prove this point even further, I took my kids to see the new Star Wars film, and they loved it, but while waiting to go inside we overheard some complaints about the actor John Boyega (who is black) being cast in a lead role. Does that sound more like 1963 than 2016 to you or not?
Every year we honor Dr. King’s birthday and legacy with a national holiday on the third Monday in January; however, it has to be more than an opportunity for extended ski weekends or retail sales. To truly honor his memory and his years as a civil rights activist that caused a juggernaut of change in race relations in this country, we must continue to press for the things he fought so hard to achieve.
A black president will be leaving office and there is only one black candidate among all those who are seeking the nomination of their parties. The fact that Dr. Ben Carson has been ridiculed unmercifully and his candidacy, though once vibrant and popular, has been reduced to almost inconsequential, suggests that there were those who didn’t want him running for the highest office in the land. Some people will say that it is because of Dr. Carson’s own missteps, but if you believe that I have a few bridges over the East River I’d like to sell you.
Bottom line is that Dr. King left a vibrant legacy and his dream for equality and equity for all people is a significant part of that. We should all want that kind of America Dr. King envisioned – a truly shining beacon of light for all the world to see. Obviously, we are not there yet, and it is up to all Americans to get us there; otherwise, that “beautiful symphony of brotherhood” Dr. King imagined will end up being a dirge for us all.
Photo credits: foxnews, cnn