Today, January 18, 2010, we celebrate the life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. almost 42 years after his assassination. A question that continues to stir vigorous debate among Americans of all backgrounds is this: “Has Dr. Kings Dream been realized?” Responses fall along a wide spectrum, ranging from, “Of course it’s been realized – we have a Black President!” to “Not even close! Racism and prejudice have only gone underground. The struggle for equality lives on!” Perhaps it would be helpful to take a look at a part of Dr. King’s speech that are less well-known but no less important in evaluating our progress towards fulfilling the dream he shared so powerfully and eloquently many years ago.
Dr. King prefaces the heart of his oratorical masterpiece with which we are all familiar with a word of admonition for his fellow African-Americans. He states:
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
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.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.
Dr. King warns that the Dream of equality in America will never truly be a reality without a commitment to righteousness and unconditional, Christ-like love. This is a love that is selfless, sacrificial and not dependent of how one is treated, but rather it is dependant upon one’s commit to the God of History Who ultimately vindicates all who stand firm for the good. To you, my friends, who are committed to a better day and a brighter future, I solemnly charge you to walk uprightly and to take no shortcuts in seeking to gain societal ground. Shun evil. Do the right thing. Beyond that, I challenge you to look beyond your own neighborhood for others of different backgrounds who share a passion for what is right and who are prepared to pay the price to see that good triumphs over evil. Dr. King makes it plain, that moral lawlessness will only set back the clock that measures or progress towards equality. We must have a commitment to good that respects and empowers women, protects and prepares children, and upholds and guards the dignity of every man. ANY rhetoric, entertainment or action that violates this solemn trust which has been given to us by those who have preceded us is nothing short of treasonous.
Dr. King also unequivocally asserts that no one group of people can make progress towards realizing the dream alone. We must learn to create an atmosphere of trust that allows us to share our hurts without hurting each other and to share our dreams without overlooking each other. We must own the fact that our histories as people groups are part of a larger collective history we all share as people period. As we cherish and protect our unique histories, it is our collective history we must all learn to respect and celebrate in unity and love.
Dr. King also reminds us that there will always be those who seek to destroy our dreams, but we must never allow ourselves to be dragged backwards by them. We must NEVER allow ourselves to be brought down in despair to the point of using methods that would set back the cause of righteousness or pull down the good name of those who have gone before. We must always march ahead!
Ultimately, the struggle for all people to be treated equally is a lifelong one. Though many of the goals for which he and others strived have been realized – we can now all eat side by side legally and we can all utilize common public facilities and services – I’m sure Dr. King would be disappointed to see how much ground has been lost because of our failure to live up to his WHOLE speech. I have trouble feeling a sense of progress, when there are more broken homes, more single parents, more aborted babies and more community violence than at the time the speech was made during my first year of life. It’s difficult for me to whole-heartedly celebrate integrated schools when there are more young African-American men in prison than in college. It’s hard to feel completely good about neighborhoods integrating when the neighborhood I left behind in metro-Detroit was for a brief period a microcosm of Dr. King’s dream of Blacks and Whites as neighbors but has now become yet another statistic of White flight. It’s a struggle to get worked up in the euphoria of the first US President of African descent, when it seems people are content to live vicariously through his achievements rather than consider how they might break down barriers of their own and work for a better society. As I review D. Kings speech, I’m not sure that we’ve really he understood what he was challenging us to pursue.
In chasing after the American Dream, we seem to have forgotten a much bigger vision, built on much better promises. Jesus commands us to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all else will be added unto you.” In our pursuit of rights and dreams, we’ve too often neglected what is right and forsaken the development of character that makes the pursuit of dreams possible.
As I reflect on Dr. King’s speech, I’m not going to be content to lament where we have fallen short or to vicariously experience it through someone else. I’m going to pursue how I can walk a more righteous walk, live in a more inspiring way and love with more sincerity, forgiveness and helpfulness in my life and ministry. I’m going to take action to make a difference every chance I get, over and over again, rather than complain about what might have been if I only I hadn’t failed before. If you truly want to live out Dr. King’s dream, don’t just watch me, join me. Perhaps if enough of us walk together someone, someday just might be able to say, “Those people don’t just talk about the Dream. They live it.” Still chasing the Dream - Until next time…