has obama’s election fulfilled dr king’s dream?

a-dream-fulfilledLast 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.

4 thoughts on “has obama’s election fulfilled dr king’s dream?

  1. I’m going to turn the question around and ask, “How does a person of plight overcome the systemic inequalities built into our nation?”
    I saw a headline yesterday that claimed, “Restaurants may be responsible for America’s Obesity.” NO! I am responsible for my obesity. Not one restauranteur in America has shoved food in my face. I’ve done all the shoving. I’m responsible.
    What’s my point? Each person is responsible to overcome whatever obstacles are in their way and they can’t blame the system or the restaurants. Some have far more obstacles than I do or I can imagine. If we wait for the privileged to wake up and notice the inequalities, then we’ll be waiting a long time.
    With Obama becoming president it does not mean MLK’s Dream is realized. It does show that a black man can become president. Obama overcame obstacles he faced as a black man in America. We’re not at the point that everyone has the opportunity to be president but we might be at the point that any one can become president. But they, the individual, have to overcome the systemic inequalities they face.

  2. Obama’s victory may not be a complete fulfilmemt of MLK’s Dream, but the sacrosant point worthy of note is the fundametal fact that it is a step towards its fulfilment. But again, it will be a colossal defeat of the dream should Obama misuse this SACRED OPPORTUNITY towards its actualization.

  3. As is generally the case, Keith’s comments cause me to think more carefully. First, I agree with this: If we wait for the privileged to wake up and notice the inequalities, then we’ll be waiting a long time. I imagine that history would show that the privileged are often the most blind to the movement of justice. We can be thankful for prophets and leaders whose lives and words are clear enough for even the most removed from harsh realities to hear.

    This sentence I’m less sure about: But they, the individual, have to overcome the systemic inequalities they face. Individual responsibility is given to each of us, but social realities have to be taken seriously. As such, we should not confuse “blaming” with realistic descriptions of life. As one born into privilege I have to listen closely to those whose experience has been very different from mine, whether or not they’ve been able to overcome the obstacles I’ll never have to face.

  4. David: I’m glad to see that you consider yourself privileged. I was wondering to whom you were referring with “privileged.” Clearly, when you hear the term you think of the extremely wealthy who were born with a silver spoon in their mouths. You, like me, are privileged in so many ways. But I had trouble coming up with why the systemic inequalities are my fault or up to me to fix (or become aware). I’m not a policy maker. I don’t have a sphere of influence as do “the privileged.” If I become aware of these inequalities, what can I do? I still believe that someone has to take responsibility but perhaps there has to be a “privileged” person to help the ones who are making the effort. A handout won’t solve systemic inequalities but maybe a handout to someone who wants to overcome the obstacles and is willing to work hard at it.
    I know this sounds very arrogant (one of the many sins I regularily confess). Please disregard my sin and focus on the question. I’m truly trying to understand.

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