Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ Speech, Still Not Realized After 50 Years

As Dr. King knew, until the hatred, bigotry, selfishness and greed are balanced by empathy, integrity, and sacrifice, his dream cannot come to fruition. Image @ SeattleTimes

As Dr. King knew, until the hatred, bigotry, selfishness and greed are balanced by empathy, integrity, and sacrifice, his dream cannot come to fruition. Image @ SeattleTimes

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“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.”– “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

Maybe it’s the pessimist in me. Maybe it’s the skeptic. Maybe it’s just learned experience or my own bad dream. I find it amazing that 50 years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom we are in a very similar, if not the same, place. Still fighting for jobs and freedoms. But instead of this being a civil rights issue about race, it has evolved (having gone virtually nowhere) into a civil rights issue about class, yet without ever truly removing racism. Still a country languishing to find itself while perpetuating injustice, discrimination and inequality.

My reflection upon one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century (which you can find on YouTube in its entirety but I cannot link you to for reasons of copyright infringement) leaves me feeling a lack of hope, with a voice in my head affirming we haven’t changed a damned thing. The game is the same. Only the players are different.

Even now I can hear King’s powerful voice ring in my ears like the freedom he spoke of on the mall of our capital (“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”). Yet the movers and shakers, givers and takers of our political culture spin their wheels and grind their gears but never seem to mesh long enough to gain the needed traction to propel this country through the progression and implementation of achieving equality for all. Current reality is that many of our nation’s elected officials are doing everything they can to stand in direct opposition of achieving that dream.

History repeats itself… or so it’s said. The world’s path is cyclical. Insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing, the same way, expecting a different result. The movement started so long ago continues in its present-day form by battling issues such as stop and frisk, voting rights (i.e. voter I.D. and gerrymandering), state’s right to work, collective bargaining, abortion, education, medical care, food, housing, immigration, marriage equality, marijuana reform, even gun violence. The finger of judgment points toward these targets while the pointer never seems to acknowledge the three fingers pointing back at them. Those three fingers of responsibility, accountability and empathy are somehow lost. Neatly tucked away under the thumb of authority within a clenched fist.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech is considered a milestone. A high water mark of our freedoms at work. The passing of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 only helps to confirm its power and meaning. And yet I cannot help but feel the message wasn’t so much lost as disregarded. Swept under a rug of bureaucracy by American housekeepers. Never actually removing the dirt but rather moving it around like some game of 3-card Monte where only after you’ve played do you figure out it was all a scam. No wonder people cannot, do not, and will not trust the hustlers who are are elected. If there is one thing that has been engrained into the psyche of the American public (besides the lie of ‘we are the greatest country on earth’) is that you cannot trust the liars regardless of how good the lie sounds.

How many of our officials will stand on the steps of Lincoln’s memorial in hypocritical celebration? When, over their shoulders, contained within those walls, carved in stone,  another great man’s words, as pertinent today (when used in modern-day context) as when orated 150 years ago, remind us forever:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” – Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural address.

And, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” -Gettysburg Address.

It’s no stretch to correlate those passages with today’s challenges.

Can there be a great epiphany of our founding fathers’ intent toward human, civil and social rights? To put aside partisanship and come together as the country’s elected, to honor the missions of both King and Lincoln?

From the base of Stone Mountain in Georgia, which is, ironically, now carved with the likenesses of Confederate leaders, I share the vision of King’s dream that one day our nation’s people will not be judged by the color of their skin, the size of their wallet, their sexual orientation, choice of religion or political affiliations, but by the content of their character, the honor shown in their patriotism, and the conviction of their integrity. To do what’s right for all. Even if that means giving a little more of yourself. That is the example Dr. King gives to me.

You want some more irony? That same Georgia marble used to construct The Lincoln Memorial and deify Confederate leaders in Dr. King’s home state, my state – the largest producer of granite (by volume) in the United States – was not used to construct King’s memorial. Instead, the work was commissioned to be carved by a Chinese sculptor using Chinese marble. You view that how you wish. I see it as a slap in the face of, not only Dr. King’s memory but, today’s battles for freedoms and rights afforded within our Constitution.

Martin Luther King Jr. advocated, fought, and died so that we all would have the same and equal rights prescribed within that Constitution. Within that document and it’s amendments that followed, one right sticks out on this anniversary more than others. Our right to vote. Not only did Dr. King battle for equal treatment and against discrimination, but also so that individuals could come together and make decisions that honor generations past, present and future through the electoral process.

Fifty years after his exclamation of a dream, we are still fighting for equality in the voting booth. It seems almost impossible to fathom; not that we can’t remedy what ails us as a nation but, that we don’t. Gerrymandering fixes the game and discriminatory practices like voter I.D. laws limit the number of players. Decisions like that of Citizens United, Right To Work, stripping the Voting Rights Act, and the 40 attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act all attempt to stack the deck against the common working classes while the people, companies, and special interests who control the purse strings maintain their dominance and control. Not in pursuit of a better America but actually exploiting Americans in pursuit of profits.

Ultra-conservative views would have us do away with The Voting Rights Act, campaign reform, universal healthcare, reproductive rights and yes, even the Civil Rights Act. Just this week in the news we have seen an attempt to reinstitute the rule of Jim Crow in South Carolina. And it was only a few hours after the SCOTUS decision before states started ramming through legislation to restrict voting. Elected state officials refuse to enact policy of law in what comes across like an organized temper tantrum. Evangelicals attempt, on a daily basis, to twist the covenants of Christianity toward some self-righteous dictatorial rule of conformity. The ‘pundits’ and ‘talking heads’ skew facts and context to the point that arguments no longer have anything to do with the issues. And in the advent of technological communication advancement, everybody has an opinion. Most without the education, or qualification to opine. Never to offer solutions to legitimate issues or promote compromise, but rather degrade, demean and destroy another, pursuing egoism in some sort of apocalyptic cage match across the airwaves. Dr. King knew then, as many of us know now, until the hatred, bigotry, selfishness and greed are balanced on the scales of Lady Justice by empathy, integrity, and sacrifice for the greater good, his dream, our dreams cannot come to fruition. He once said:

“We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”

It is important that we look back on the anniversary of such a powerful speech and celebrate the advances that have been made in pursuit of freedom and equality. But of equal, if not greater, importance is to carry that memory and the celebration into the voting booths. We can make a difference. You can change the world. One person, one vote, like a soloist in Dr. King’s choir, your voice is heard. And if we will take responsibility for our civic duty and pride in the privileges voting gives to all, we can make his dream (our dreams) reality.