David Goldman/ Associated Press: In this March 26, 2012 file photo Jaquan Kelley of Atlanta wears a Skittles wrapper over his mouth during a rally in memory of slain unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
Fifty years have passed since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. Current circumstance compels us to remember and to honor Martin’s legacy anew.
His was the vision of a transformed nation, a society that dared to practice the very brotherhood and sisterhood that it preached. In a time of tremendous social upheaval, Martin embraced the freedom-loving and justice-obsessed tradition of his people, and did so at great personal cost. An exemplar of nonviolent direct action, he challenged the status quo. In the presence of his enemies citizen’s councils, police dogs, fire hoses, bigoted mobs, the FBI, faint-hearted allies, uncritical Christians, and well-respected academics he practiced an insurgent religious faith. He modeled for others the commitment to racial justice and reconciling peace. With his very life and body he moved inexorably into the magnificent, multi-colored and multi-ethnic quest for justice, peace and human community. Sore distressed, we the people have yet to catch up to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s radically inclusive and affirming vision.
For African Americans, the cumulative effect of the last fifty years has been both disturbing and dramatic. In 2013, our quest for freedom, justice and equality continues. The full repercussions of radical democracy in the United States are not yet known. Much has been accomplished; much remains to be done. The famed poet Herbert Woodward Martin perhaps said it best, “Nothing has changed; we have slipped backward. A good deal has changed; we are moving forward.” Somewhere between these poetic opposites, these contrasting observations, these lyrical extremes, resides the luminous truth.
White America routinely sees itself as color-blind and non-racist and lives comfortably with little or no real contact with other racial-ethnic groups. Oblivious to the obvious (and sometimes the not so obvious), the connection between white privilege and black and brown discontent is discounted, resisted, rejected, and denied. The culture of dis-privilege is commonplace, with disparity and death visited upon countless persons who are more often than not black, brown, poor, young and female. Structural unemployment, voting rights obstruction, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, racial profiling, anti-immigration legislation, and “stand your ground” vigilantism function as contemporary forms of social control. Any voice that dares speak publicly to the divides in our country is attacked and declared an impediment to social progress. In our houses of worship, educational institutions, the health care system, the marketplace, the corporate boardroom, the halls of government, criminal justice system, legal jurisprudence, popular culture, mass media, states red, purple, and blue, in old and new formations, racism lives on.
Many in black America now have difficulty seeing their connections to other black people. Faced with disappearing jobs, inadequate schools, deteriorating neighborhoods, the erosion of historic African American institutions, and the specter of resegregation, we often respond in ways that alienate us from one another and from ourselves. We have embraced distinctions that separate us by education, age, skin color, class and so much more. In violation of our own best inheritance we have diminished persons on the basis of their gender and sexuality. We have forgotten the example set by so many courageous souls a generation ago and more. Mose Wright, Daisy Bates, Jo Ann Robinson, E.D. Dixon, Ella Baker, Bob Moses, Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Bayard Rustin were part of that magnificent movement of blackness that metamorphosed, broke beyond itself, widened the circle of our common humanity, and however imperfectly called forth women, children, and men of all colors, conditions, and creeds.
Our houses of worship from the church to the temple, the synagogue and the mosque mirror the same levels of dis-ease and territorialism as broader society. The social conditions that divide; bigotry, elitism, fear, immigration, poverty, militarism, stigma and more await our deepest response. Our unwillingness to contend with oppressive realities in worship and life leave many potential believers despairing of finding spiritual, moral, and holistic fulfillment in faith contexts where love, justice and compassion do not prevail. To paraphrase Martin, we have become our own worst enemies, the proverbial taillights of society rather than the headlights, protectors of the status quo rather than prophetic leaders who advance our participation in a humanizing world.
And so, on this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we stop to remember Martin Luther King Jr., to praise his speech, to celebrate the much wider movement, to learn from its shortcomings, and to dedicate our lives anew. What more shall we do? Let us vow to overcome the great civic and social barriers of our day with our very hearts and deeds and lives. Let us embrace the infinite possibilities of our days and expand the imperfect meaning of our democracy. Let us transform ugliness and greed, poverty and squalor, alienation and disharmony, violence and hate into their glorious counterparts of beauty and holiness, fulfillment and tranquility, equality and equity, and love and life. Let us dare to become keepers of the dream Martin’s dream and millions more besides of a more perfect union, an inclusive society, a rainbow world; the beloved community. We are moving forward. The power is in our hands.
Alton B. Pollard, III, Ph.D. is Dean and Professor of Religion and Culture at Howard University School of Divinity.