On August 28, 1963, my father and grandfather arrived at Union Station and walked to the National Mall to attend the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” They had travelled from New Jersey, where my grandfather was a teacher and member of his local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. He simply told my father that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be a giving a speech, and they had to go.
Throughout my childhood, my father spoke of the event often. I have no doubt that in many ways it helped shape him and his beliefs. His stories about the integrated crowd of 200,000 singing, hugging, and sharing food have always stayed with me. Although active in the civil rights movement, my grandfather was far from a hippie. Before the march he had served in the U.S. Army in Korea, and after would serve in the Air Force Reserve in Vietnam.
He was deeply patriotic and proud of his country, and saw in King someone who could help make his nation better for all men. The idea that all men are created equal in the eyes of God burned in him, and he always saw it as not only compatible with the idea of America, but central to it.
We’ve Moved from Equality to Identity Politics
On that hot summer day in 1963, King delivered what is arguably the finest speech ever given on American soil. One trembles while reading it, and upon hearing its delivery so many years later, one gets chills. As a piece of rhetoric, it is simply astounding. It is sweeping and grand, yet also boils down to a four-word phrase that shook the world: “I have a dream.”
But as we once again celebrate King and his dream today, we must ask ourselves, do we still share it? For the first time in decades we have a president whom serious people accuse of outright racism, and not without reason. His recent remarks about Haiti and Africa led even Republican Rep. Mia Love to label the commander in chief’s alleged words racist. Of course, these aren’t the first of his statements to come under such fire.
What became clear through Trump’s campaign and presidency is that the rules governing how we talk about race, forged in King’s civil rights struggle, no longer hold. Trump’s supporters, who include more blacks and minorities than many like to consider, simply do not find his statements disqualifying.
But this tolerance of questionable racial rhetoric is larger than Trump and predates him. Over the past two decades, we have moved away from King’s dream in significant ways. King 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 the character.” This does not appear to be the goal of our nation’s efforts against racism today.
Rather, in our troubled time, calling out the inherent and implacable racism of white people has replaced the goal of treating all people as individuals. How far from today’s damning rhetoric about the evils of whiteness this passage is: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
Abandoning the Tradition of Overcoming Evil With Love
This militancy was also not punching racists, throwing chairs through windows, burning and looting. It was a far fiercer form of militancy, one that, Christ-like, demanded non-violence, even in the face of unspeakable violence. It was one that demanded love, even in the face of horrible hatred.
For many on the Right, it is these sentiments that stand out most in King’s speech and his work. But less-quoted, less-considered, and less-comfortable are sentiments like these regarding America a century after emancipation: “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
This, as the saying goes, was not a threat; it was a fact. It is a fact born out by decades of violence and riots, by economic disparity and unequal treatment in criminal justice. The passage of time has made us wonder if King’s dream of a healed nation was maybe just that: a fantasy we must move on from as adults move on from childish ideas.
King and his movement were aided by an enormous leap forward in technology. Television brought King’s speeches, with his vocal vibrato and preacher’s power, into homes all over the country. But that wasn’t all it brought. It brought scenes of violence and mistreatment to white America. It was a wake-up call.
Today, our own technological advancements provide another such spark. Examples of police violence towards blacks, once treated as isolated incidents and local news, are aggregated and spread nationwide. Once-murky cases of police shootings, in which we gave deference to the police officer’s version, have given way to videos of death that often discomfort and disgust us.
A Tradition for Martin Luther King Jr. Day
In our hot-mic world of instant communication, the most extreme voices carry the most bandwidth. Perhaps this offers a glimmer of hope. Perhaps in our real lives, our in-the-flesh interactions with each other, we are closer to King’s dream of equality than the loudest voices on both sides suggest. I very much hope that is true, but I am not convinced anymore that most Americans dream of the color-blind society that King dreamed of.
This weekend my seven-year-old son, who is named after my grandfather, was assigned a book report on King. A fourth generation of my family was to be moved and inspired by him. We read the book together. At one point, when segregated water fountains were mentioned, my son threw his hands up in exasperation. “Why on earth would anybody want separate water fountains,” he said, “That’s so stupid.”
I wanted to answer his question. I thought about telling him about irrational bias, learned prejudice, systemic racism, critical race theory, or just plain old fear. Instead I just said, “Yeah, that’s really stupid.”
The real answer to racism, though it may require complicated and calculated approaches to education, is that it’s just stupid. In his magnificent speech, King explained why. He explained that there is dignity in all of us.
Martin Luther King Day is a holiday without many national traditions. For many Americans it’s just a day off from work or school. I’d like to suggest one. Read or listen to King’s speech on the day that we honor him. Ask yourself if you share his hope for the future, if you dare to dream his dream, even though half a century since the speech it sometimes feels we are still so far away. Try to. It was then, and still is, our best hope.