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Inevitably at every celebration across the country of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday his historic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech is referenced, dissected, and rehashed. Reflecting on the advances of the African-American community since King’s untimely death in 1968 it is easy to believe that although the dream has been deferred there is hope that it is still attainable.
After all, one of the richest people in America, Oprah Winfrey, is African-American. One of the nation’s highest appointed positions, Secretary of State, has been held by not one but two persons of African descent: Colin Powell and now Condoleezza Rice. African-Americans own businesses, represent us in both the United States House and Senate, lead many major cities and have attained many other goals that were at one time only dreamt about.
It certainly looked as if we would overcome one day, but then there was the nightmare of Katrina.
A nightmare today that was not unforeseen by Dr. King. In remarks made in 1967 in Atlanta, Dr. King commented that, “In 1963…in Washington DC…I tried to talk to the nation about a dream I had, and I must confess…that not long after talking about the dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare…I watched the dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negro’s problem of poverty.”
There in New Orleans, on rooftops and in the Super Dome we saw black, brown, and white, young and old perishing on a “lonely island of poverty.”
Katrina put the spotlight on the nightmare that has been growing steadily since King’s 1967 remarks. A nightmare now of global proportions affecting the poor and people of color worldwide.
Young African-American and Latino men continue to be on a pipeline, as described by Marian Wright Edelman, from “Cradle to Prison.” The poverty rate in metro areas is 12.3 percent, while in center cities it rises to 18.5 percent. More and more working families are uninsured and living below the poverty line. The poor are two times as likely to die from disease, accident, behavior and homicide. And urban residents are more likely to be victims of environmental injustice than their wealthy counterparts. Diseases long thought controlled in the United States are reappearing amongst the urban poor and the scourge of HIV/AIDS threatens to decimate not just cities but, in some parts of the world, entire communities.
Although you can find African-Americans living in many suburban neighborhoods, fewer than 50 percent of black families own their own homes. Low-income and affordable housing is disappearing with new projects under-funded. The ranks of the homeless have grown to include women, children and families.
Our children, the hope of our future, are the worst victims. Lack of health insurance, inadequate education, illiteracy and lack of employment opportunities have diminished the hope in many young people and the dreams of parents to have their children have a better future than they had.
Forty years after schools were desegregated in the South, many urban youth attend schools segregated as much by economics as by race. Young men and women unable to find jobs and inadequately prepared for many of today’s hi-tech jobs enlisted in the military seeking training and/or money for education. Instead they have been shipped off to Iraq to fight in an unjust war, many coming home in body bags. War was yet another nightmare King talked about that Christmas Eve in Atlanta, saying, “I saw the dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating.” What would Dr. King have said about the war in Iraq with victims not just Americans but Iraqi as well?
What would Dr. King say about the atrophy of citizenship in this country? Wouldn’t he consider the low voter turnout at each election not just by African-Americans but by youth, and then those who do participate in democracy disenfranchised by voter fraud and hanging “chads” a nightmare? Would he not, reflecting upon the sacrifices and deaths for this right in the 60s, find voter apathy a nightmare? Certainly the swing to the far right with its re-emergence of intolerance, passage of discriminatory ballot initiatives, and now the assault on affirmative action are part of this horrific nightmare.
We are a nation caught up in bribery, scandal, spying on its own citizenry in the name of national security. Churches surrounded by poverty, despair and disenfranchisement focusing on discriminatory ballot initiatives rather than trying to lift the entire community up to a higher level – the entire community black, white, brown, straight, gay, young, old, Christian and Muslim. Is this our nightmare?
It is right that we honor Dr. King each January. A leader, visionary and activist for social change, his life is an example for a better tomorrow. His dream, our dream of a nation where each of us would not be judged by the color of our skin, whom we love or the size of our bank account, but by the content of our character can be a reality. That is our hope. A hope that even in his final days, haunted by the premonition that he might not get to the “promised land,” he did not give up. At his last appearance on “Meet the Press” in 1967 Dr. King commented, “The one thing that keeps it going is hope, and when hope dies, somehow the revolution degenerates into a kind of nihilistic philosophy which says you must engage in disruption for disruption’s sake.”
So each January let’s remember his dream and continue to celebrate the hope and promise of his 1963 speech. But at the same time, let’s wake up from this current nightmare and take concrete actions so that we, each of us, shall overcome someday.