Last week I mentioned that one of the questions the media seemed particularly interested in during the presidential inauguration was whether Dr Martin Luther King’s dream had been realized in Barack Obama’s presidency. The assumption, as I understand it, is that since an African American man has been elected to the nation’s highest office we can now assume that Dr King’s vision for American has come to pass. This appears to me an absurd notion, but I can imagine two ways that a person could arrive at this conclusion.
First, it could be that a misunderstanding of Dr King’s dream may lead a person to think that Obama’s election somehow fulfills everything the civil rights leader envisioned. Given that most of us understand King through sound bytes and quick video clips this seems like a likely possibility. While I’m not sure how most folks would summarize Dr King, I think it’s safe to say that his thinking on economic equality and war (to take 2 examples) remains unfulfilled.
Second, a misunderstanding of civil rights in contemporary America might also lead folks to think Dr King’s dream has been realized. It’s easy for me to forget, but there are plenty of people whose vision of the USA leads them to see a very level playing field. This vision doesn’t allow for race or class inequity because these don’t align with the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story treasured by so many.
I think the first misunderstanding is more easily addressed than the second. For a larger view of what Dr King envisioned for American you might begin with two very different speeches: Paul’s Letters to American Christians delivered in 1956 and Beyond Vietam delivered in 1967. As you read these speeches it becomes clear that while President Obama’s election is a massive deal, it alone doesn’t fulfill the dream.
The second misunderstanding seems more difficult to me. How does a person of privilege come to see the systemic inequalities built into our nation? My best attempt at an answer would include relationships, humility and genuine listening. On my better days that seems a hopeful answer; other times it sounds downright pathetic.
Any thoughts on this? I’m always curious if you think I’ve missed something.