On Martin Luther King Day

He had a dream
It’s been over fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I have a dream speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial

Fifty years.

Times have changed
For me, quite literally, that’s been almost a lifetime. I was born in 1960, so I grew up during some amazing times of change. I’ve said this before, so many times. The ways things are now couldn’t even be imagined when I was born. Technology, medicine, our knowledge in general has expanded to the point where it almost makes you wonder where it will end. Just sitting here right now I see my flat screen television on to which I can somehow cast images from my personal computer that is so small it fits on my TV tray. I have my iPhone next to me that can do everything my computer can do and it fits in my hand. My printer, which is connected to my computer and my phone by bluetooth technology is broken, but that’s okay. They’re cheap now. I have piles of CDs and DVDs that I never use, because it’s so much easier to get them online. I own lots of paper books, but even more books in another tiny computer I bought because it was on sale and it was cute. I have a light bulb in my lamp that is a spiral and not a bulb at all and is some how both more efficient and longer lasting. And I can operate all of this stuff without ever having to stand up.

And that’s just in my own living room. And the thing is, I’m not rich. This is all pretty common. Yet, I remember when the smallest computers filled rooms. When calculations were something you did with a sliderule (okay, my dad was an engineer, but still). I remember when you had to get up to change a channel on the TV or answer the phone and you weren’t guaranteed there’d be anything there when you did. I remember walking for blocks to copy my taxes at a store that had all the copy machines in the neighborhood. I spent more time in the library than coffee shops and if I drank coffee, I was lucky if it had milk and sugar. I also probably walked 20 miles to school, up hill, in the snow, and then 30 miles back and was glad of it.

My point is… in fifty years, we’ve advanced.

But not really
And yet, for all that, I can’t say we’ve really advanced as a society.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and told America what he saw one hundred years after the end of slavery. It wasn’t a happy sight. He said, “…the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He described the promise made by our country, to all people, black and white, as a check, one that that seemed to have no funds when the black people of the nation came to cash theirs.

Then he went on to talk about his dream for the future. It was a wonderful dream of equality for all people regardless of race, even in the most hateful of places.

I wonder today what he would think of his dream today. More than fifty years later even I, a white woman born into a world of privilege I’m still learning to understand, can see that things haven’t really changed very much. Oh, I think we thought they had, some of us, those of us who really wanted to believe it was so. We thought segregation stopped when we took down the signs and opened the schools. We thought because laws had been passed, that certain words had become taboo, that people who we worked with, ate with, lived with were sometimes people of color, that we recognized the contributions of African Americans in our history books sometimes, that things had changed. We knew there were still some problems. But, hey, it was better, right?

No, not really. It’s not really better at all. I’m not going to spout off statistics here. Do a google search. They’re there. People are still being marginalized, segregated because of skin color, sexual orientation, gender, religion, national origin. The signs are down and the laws were passed, but that doesn’t mean a thing when you’re tired and hungry and you find that maybe you’ll be given a room and a meal, but only if you understand that you are not wanted, that it might not be safe to stay and you better damn well stay in your place while you’re there. It doesn’t mean a thing if you get pulled over on the street by the person you pay to protect you but you’re scared for your life. It doesn’t mean a thing if you have to hide who you really are just to use a bathroom. It doesn’t mean a thing if you move into a neighborhood with the best schools so your children can get the education they deserve only to find that they are harassed each and every day.

But as a white, privileged American, I can pretend things have gotten better. If I close my eyes. If I turn my back. If I forget, even for a little while that dreams only come true with hard work.

We must be the instruments of change
I’m speaking to the white people reading now, mostly because I’m pretty sure there isn’t a person of color reading who doesn’t already know this to be true.

Dr. King said,   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 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.

We cannot be satisfied.

The dream has not been fulfilled, and it can never be until those who have the power are forced to release it. The oppressed, the marginalized, could, I think make that happen, but only through a violence that would tear our already beleaguered nation apart. Read the speech. That’s not what Dr. King wanted.

The other thing that could happen is that those of us who benefit from inequality first recognize the fact that we do benefit and then force those who hold the power of change to balance the scales.

What I’m asking isn’t easy. It means that we have to admit we have a privilege we didn’t ask for, maybe don’t even want. It’s embarrassing to admit. It’s horrible to say that I live with all that I have because others have gone without for so long. It’s feels belittling to admit that I have advantages and yet I’m still here, wherever here is. It’s scary to think that there might be repercussions that I don’t like if things do change.

Action is harder. To stand up and say that isn’t funny when friends tell a joke. To walk with a woman in hijab to keep her safe from harassment. To argue with someone in authority. To put yourself in harm’s way to keep someone else from being hurt. These are not easy things to do.

It is easy to tell yourself that it’s not your job, that others will do it better, that’s it’s not really your problem and besides things are getting better. It is easy to think you don’t benefit, that you may even be a bit persecuted yourself and you’re not even racist. Besides, things are getting better.

But take my word for it. They’re not.

Yet, act we must. Because it’s now been more than fifty years since that speech, more than one hundred and fifty years since the end of slavery, and too many people still are living a nightmare. It’s good to share a dream, but dreams are only the start. Now is time for action.

Dr. King’s speech




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