More Than King for a Day or President for Four More Years
Sometimes I wish I could see the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial from a distance, the way one can see the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol. Maybe if I could see King from afar it would be a reminder that the skyline of this city has been changed and maybe also the soul of America. The problem with birthday celebrations is that you try to forget them the older you become. No longer might a birthday come with cake and balloons. I remember when folks were pushing to make King’s birthday a national holiday and suddenly everyone was singing and dancing with Stevie Wonder.
Today we lean into President Obama and it’s a slow dance with a slow economy. Many will think about King’s dream and believe that Obama becoming president of the United States was its symbolic fulfillment, but that should not be the case. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington was a social protest demanding jobs and justice, full employment and voting rights. Strangely one could make a case that in 2013 many of these demands have not been met. In Washington D.C. some of the statistics collected about African Americans in regard to health, education and employment are like those revealed after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. We seem to have suffered from a historical earthquake followed with constant tremors.
I’ve always felt that King gave two speeches on August 28, 1963. He started by looking back before he decided to look forward.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free; one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.
King would then begin to move into what is a radical indictment of America’s promise to African Americans. He spoke about the promissory note the country had defaulted on. A note that guaranteed all people the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He spoke about how his people were given a bad check, one that came back marked “insufficient funds.”
The reason why more than 250,000 people gathered in Washington back in the summer of ’63 was because of what King described that day as the fierce urgency of now. It is not until near the end of his speech – with Mahalia Jackson encouraging him – that King begins to talk about his dream. It is this part of his speech that our eyes and ears return to many years later. We overlook the beginning of King’s speech the way we blow out candles on the top of a birthday cake.
I view King as not just an inspirational leader but also as a man who was a father. His dream at the end of his speech embraced his children.
I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
It’s sad to see that King’s oldest child is now balding and America has not changed. Meanwhile for four years we have watched Sasha and Malia grow up. They will spend eight years watching their father serve as president of the United States. This is not a dream.
Yet what about the people beyond the White House? Last year I pulled a video of the March on Washington and watched Mahalia Jackson sing “How I Got Over.” There is no way one cannot be moved by this woman’s voice, aura, or simply the way she closes her eyes and turns her head into song. “Mahalia!” My mother mentioned her name when I was growing up and always said, “What a voice.” Maybe this is the voice we need to hear everyday if we can’t wait for the dream.
We need to be reminded how we got over all these years. How we elected Obama not once but twice. We had to pinch ourselves again in 2012, stand in long lines, and know that one’s feet might be tired, but our soul is rested.
I don’t know too much about climate change. I do remember how cold it was when Obama placed his hand on Lincoln’s bible back in 2008 – now it’s 2013 – how much warmer is it? Is it still winter in America? That was a song once sung by Gil Scott-Heron. He was much the poet-prophet before his death in 2011. He joined Stevie Wonder in the early 1980s on his “Hotter than July Tour” which was billed as a way of building support for King’s birthday to be celebrated as a national holiday.
How far have we come? We have a song, a holiday and a monument. We have an African American who is president. But what is the true measure of all this? Are we truly free at last?
Reflect on these words spoken by King in that same “I Have A Dream” speech:
This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy…
Yes, we need to be reminded again and again about the fierce urgency of now.