This was first posted on January 21, 2008. I’m reposting it now, because aside from the fact that Barack Obama has now served a full term as President of the United States, and back then he was just one of several running for office, very little has changed.
Originally, I hadn’t planned on writing anything to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, because I wrote something last week on his actual birthday. But I’ve been reading a fair amount about him lately, his legacy, and the current state of race relations in this country. Many people have interesting things to say, and interesting points of view. But since none of them are David Walker, there is nothing they have to say that is all that important. Which is why I am humbly submitting a few things that I would like to offer up for consideration.
First of all, if you have never heard Dr. King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety, please do so now. I have posted it below.
There are many things interesting about this speech, but what I find most interesting—and by “interesting” I actually mean “disturbing”—is that very few people know this speech by heart. The entire speech runs approximately 17 minutes, but the parts that people remember—the parts that made history—come from the final five minutes. These final five minutes are when Dr. King, apparently discarding the notes he was using earlier, changes the dynamic of his speech, and launches into what most people think of when they think of “I Have A Dream.” These five simple words have come to define a historical place and time in the United States history, and have taken on as much importance as “We the people,” “Four score and seven years ago,” and “May the Force be with you.” Sadly, most Americans probably know more about “may the Force be with you” than they do about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The same is true for “I have a dream,” which most Americans (hopefully) know was said by Dr. King. But how many know the date it was said, where it was said, or the circumstances under which it was said? The answer to all of these questions is infinitely important in understanding why “I have a dream” is so memorable and important, while at the same time little more than a whimsical bunch of bullshit upon which far too many people have staked their lives.
Before I go any further, let me state for the record that I am not trying to undermine or diminish anything Dr. King said during the final five minutes of his speech. Those five minutes and the five words he repeated throughout that address were infinitely important in helping bring about some very real changes in this country. But the truth of the matter is that a dream, in the context of Dr. King’s speech, can be defined as “an aspiration, goal or aim.” I suppose you could also make the argument that within the context of how America was in 1963, when he gave that speech, that a dream could also have been pessimistically defined as a “wild or vain fancy; a vision voluntarily indulged in while awake; daydream; reverie.” But no matter how you define the word dream, what Dr. King spoke of in the final five minutes of his speech—the only part of the speech anyone has committed to memory—was not about something that was real. You can call it a goal, a fantasy or bullshit. But the truth is that in 1963 his dream was not real, and though the dream itself may continue in 2008, it is still not real.
While those final five minutes of King’s speech were filled with the hope and desire for a better world with racial equality, the first twelve minutes of the speech is not about a dream, but about reality. For twelve minutes Dr. King lays out the truth about racial injustice in this country. And many of these truths are still as real as they were over four decades ago. But no one remembers the first twelve minutes of the speech, which is emblematic of the romanticized way people remember history. Dr. King’s speech came eight years after the murder of Emmett Till, a few short months before the assassination of Medgar Evers, a barely a year before the horrific triple murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Twenty-three years after King’s speech in Washington D.C., Cedric Sandiford, Timothy Grimes and Michael Griffith were attacked in New York’s Howard Beach, resulting in Griffith’s death. And even today, in the town of Jena, LA., where white supremacists were rallying on the holiday honoring Dr. King, racism is alive and well. This was the reality of the country King was addressing in 1963, and it continues to be a reality today.
The point I’m trying to make is that America is a racist country, and while many will admit to the racist horrors of the past, few truly grasp the extent of how bad things were, or how bad things still are. Instead, we choose to honor a man by remembering him primarily for a dream he had, rather than getting our hands dirty by examining the soul-crushing mechanism of racism, sexism and classism that still grinds people to dust.
Now, I’m not so naïve as to say that we can fix everything that is wrong with this country in terms of race, gender and class, but I am smart enough to know that before you can repair anything, you need to understand what it is you’re trying to fix and exactly how it is broken. Among other things, that means that people need to inform and educate themselves. More specifically, people need to know how fucked up they are, and how fucked up their ancestors were—this pertains to everyone, not just Americans, or white people.
Several years ago I wrote a review of Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. In the review I basically said that if a white person did not come away from the film feeling ashamed and outraged for how racist white America was and is, then there must be something wrong with them. An old friend of mine left a message after reading that review, telling me to go fuck myself, and that they weren’t racist, nor did they have anything to apologize for. About a year later, this same person actually sat down and watched Unforgivable Blackness, and then apologized to me, saying they had no idea how bad this country really was. And that’s the problem with this country and many of the people who live in it—they have no idea of how bad things once were, and in some cases still are.
Honestly, I don’t think Martin Luther King Jr., wherever his soul may be, gives a shit that there is a holiday named after him, or that federal employees and school children get the day off. If he is capable of seeing what the world is today—even with the strides made in Civil Rights, the popularity of Senator Barack Obama, and Will Smith’s box office domination—I think he is probably very sad and disgusted at what we have done to his dream.