Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Continuing to Dream

Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his classic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C.  This speech was a part of the larger “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” which was designed to “dramatize [the] shameful condition” of discrimination and economic oppression that African-Americans faced. [1] The march in general and his speech in particular were credited with pushing forward the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. As a result, Dr. King is recognized today as a national hero.
But Dr. King was not held in such widespread favor. In his day, many people opposed what Dr. King was doing because they believed that the fight against racism was over. After all, slavery had been abolished for 100 years, the federal government had given African-Americans full voting rights, and an increasing number of African-Americans were rising into positions of influence. It wasn’t clear to many white people what Dr. King was still fighting for. Many believed that the American government had done its part. Now, it was up to African-Americans themselves to improve their situation.

But Dr. King knew that there was more to it than that. He saw that there were power structures that kept African-Americans at the bottom of society, and he could give a sophisticated account of what these structures were and was always prepared to supply specific examples of how they mistreated people. However, his reasoning by itself was not enough to persuade his opponents. So he helped organize boycotts and sit-ins, which exposed the ugliness of police brutality and brought the injustice that was occurring onto a national stage. When this happened, people accused him of making a big fuss over nothing and inciting violence, even though he was merely organizing peaceful assemblies! This is what led him to say, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” [2]

This is still the greatest stumbling block to minorities today. Although we have had tremendous success in resisting the hard racism of the KKK, there is still a mountain of resistance from “the white moderate” who lacks the patience to listen to cries of racial injustice. [3] I know this because I was raised as a white moderate. I love my home family and my church and I cherish all that they taught me, but this was one area where they fell short. The white moderate today, like the white moderate a half-century ago, believes that the fight against racism is over. The white moderate today, like the white moderate a half-century ago, thinks you have a right to your opinions but discourages you from putting them in public forms, whether in political rallies or Facebook posts. The white moderate today, like the white moderate half a century ago, silences the conversation about race because, as Dr. King noted, they “prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Having been a white moderate myself, I do not believe that people who hold such views are secretly harboring sinister intentions to harm minorities or even believe their race to be superior. They are ignorant of the white privilege that they have inherited from the legacy of racism, and if you could convince them of it, most of them would give it up.  But their ignorance is a fierce one. It is not stirred by calm complaints and it won’t listen to passionate protests. Intellectual explanations lose its attention and personal testimonies don’t shake its conviction. I have often wondered how I can communicate the transformation of my own perspective to my white-moderate brothers and sisters in a way that is critical yet empowering, practical yet inspiring, confrontational yet inviting. And today I remember that Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished this by sharing a dream. So here is my dream:

I have a dream that wealthy white people will no longer avoid schools and neighborhoods that are predominately populated by minorities out of concern for their children, but that places with racial and socioeconomic diversity will be seen as the best possible setting for a child’s growth.

I have a dream that our prisons will no longer be filled with black and brown bodies, but that our nation will learn to pursue the kind of justice that restores individuals and communities to wholeness.

I have a dream that 11 o’clock on Sundays will become the most diverse – rather than the most divided – hour of the week.

I have a dream that my children will live in a society where we can have civil conversations about race, that they will understand that race is a creation of man and not of God, and that they will therefore be able to acknowledge its influence without legitimating its power. I have a dream that my children will not be surprised when the progress we make inspires other oppressed groups to speak out and that they will constantly renew their strength in the long journey toward justice.

I have a dream that people of every tongue, tribe, and nation will come from the east and the west to take their places at the table of Abraham, so that the one who gathered much does not have too much and the one who gathered little does not have too little. This is a dream of the kingdom of heaven. Only God can bring it about. But by dreaming it, I can see it, I can participate in it, and I can find the strength to keep striving for it.

End Notes

[1] This is how Dr. King describes the march in the second paragraph of his, “I Have a Dream” speech.

[2] This excerpt is from King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

[3] For a more analytical description of the racism that persists in the United States in the form of “soft racism,” see my post about the Zimmerman trial.

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