It might sound odd or indefensible to claim that Martin Luther King Jr.’s wonderful speech known as “I Have a Dream” was determined by MLK to be more of a nightmare than a dream of peace and tranquility. In fact, if you think about it, the phrase “the American dream” refers not to racial or social justice, but striking it rich. Indeed, American values (the dark ones) dashed King’s buoyant optimism present when he wrote about his dream, and he knew this before he died. Will social justice and racial integration ever be realized? Your guess is as good as mine.
“Make no mistake: When King told us about his dream, he understood the fierce urgency of now, but it took him a few more years to understand how deeply this nation lies to itself about the content of its character.” Those are the words of Kirsten West Savali, written in a piece in The Root. Indeed, she is speaking of a triad of repugnant values that America has always had in spades. Here is how she put it, characterizing how Martin Luther King, Jr. felt about America vis-a-vis his moving and eloquent sermon which was given that day beneath the Washington Monument:
“But three-and-a-half years later, he realized that ‘the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism’ are cornerstones of the United States. And he realized that the U.S. government is the ‘greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.’”
That’s heavy. Disturbing. Shame-producing.
Isn’t it an appalling lack of social justice and racial equality that he said he “could never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horror of police brutality”? One might try to delegitimize any legacy of slavery or Jim Crow or just garden-variety racism, claiming it is a thing of the past, or it is greatly overshadowed by America’s glittering promise. I quote liberally from the then-illiberal (but still not as extreme as modern Republicans) Ronald Reagan:
“It is our spiritual commitment—more than all the military might in the world—that will win our struggle for peace. It is not “bombs and rockets” but belief and resolve—it is humility before God that is ultimately the source of America’s strength as a nation.
Our people always have held fast to this belief, this vision, since our first days as a nation.
I know I have told before of the moment in 1630 when the tiny ship Arabella bearing settlers to the New World lay off the Massachusetts coast. To the little bank of settlers gathered on the deck, John Winthrop said: ‘we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.’
Well, America became more than ‘a story,’ or a ‘byword’—more than a sterile footnote in history. I have quoted John Winthrop’s words more than once on the campaign trail this year—for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining ‘city on a hill,’ as were those long ago settlers.”
I suppose that in between two minimally legitimate points of view one can find the truth. Thus I don’t mean to say that Reagan was completely bereft of the impulse for social justice and racial harmony, but that “city on a hill” speech does nicely capture the point that MLK was making when he juxtaposed America’s potential (the dream) with its present level of development (the nightmare). Here we are edified by the passionate and seemingly good-hearted Mario Cuomo:
“This nation is more a tale of two cities than it is just a shining city on a hill. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces you don’t see, in the places you don’t visit in your shining city.”
An earnest and rational person couldn’t diminish the heart and soul of this line if they tried: “Maybe Mr. President if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire or for a missile we couldn’t afford to use.”
Racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. I think a lot about these topics, vis-a-vis social justice and other positive values such as egalitarianism, liberalism, and Christian love. I cannot say that Dr. King was wrong. It is sad and unfortunate and disconcerting that today in America we are led by an authoritarian-inclined narcissist who is anti-intellectual, divisive, and more than a little bit bigoted.
We also see school shootings, police brutality which sometimes results in what is tantamount to murder on the job, and poverty that is a national embarrassment. We don’t have any more social justice than we do a functional and well-maintained infrastructure. Our political animosity at this time, some 50 years after MLK, is about as monumental as our $20,000,000,000 national debt. We sell more arms to the world than any other country. Cuba has a better infant mortality rate than we do. America is falling down on the job instead of leading when it comes to creating solutions for global warming. The Trump Administration is stacked with cronies, imbeciles, well-meaning fools, dark-hearted capitalistic wolves, and incompetents. We have never even gotten close to having a reckoning for atrocities such as slavery, Japanese-American internment, or treatment of the American Indians. Birth control, including abortion is being made more difficult. We are more materialistic and misguided than ever. The Equal Rights Amendment never passed, and politicians drop one by one as their lewd and disrespectful acts toward females who work for them comes out in the #MeToo movement. Immigration and “America First!” are issues that are nearly inextricable from white power and bigotry, thanks in large part to the demagoguery and chicanery peddled by Trump ever since his “birtherism.”
I wish we valued social justice as much as militarism, wealth, and white people maintaining a privileged position. I sometimes despair, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mario Cuomo, that I won’t live to see us reach our potential. I worry we are seeing a slow-motion decaying of the potential for America to really be a “shining city on a hill.” The gods have set humanity up, metaphorically speaking, for tragedy when we fall back on automatic and infantile characteristics such as tribalism, pathological individualism, and greed. Think about guns and gun violence in relation to the wonderful lyrics to the song “The Devil’s Right Hand,” featuring the compelling line: “Mama said the pistol is the devil’s right hand.” The following stanza is simply haunting when juxtaposed with America’s obsession with guns and war:
About the time that Daddy left to fight the big war,
I saw my first pistol in the general store;
In the general store, when I was thirteen,
Thought it was the finest thing I ever had seen.
Here is a link to a page featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes about social justice, racial equality, peace, love, and understanding.