Best to Forget King’s “Dream” Speech?

On this 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, it is time to recognize that the activists, artists, and common citizens who demanded fairness for black Americans were also creating democracy for all Americans. The meaning of their struggle lives not in the past, but in the present.

Of course, as we commemorate that hot summer afternoon of August 28, 1963, we can’t help seeing the March as an old faded photograph and hearing the speech as a crackly old recording. These moments are past.  We remember them and memorialize them. They happened then, and we live now.

But if this is all we do, we are failing the vision of democracy King and many other African American activists have shared. For them, the past must be remembered but also overcome. For Americans too often assume that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution settled our political problems long ago. All we have to do now is sit back and let these documents fulfill their promise.

But as King pointed out, “Progress does not roll in on wheels of inevitability.” Democracy demands continuous action in the present.

This is why Frederick Douglass spoke often of “the ever-present now” and even claimed that “we have to do with the past only as it is of use to the present.” This is why James Baldwin wrote that, “The time is always now,” and why King himself exhorted Americans to heed “the fierce urgency of now.”

The Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to overturn the crucial section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 perfectly exemplifies the harm a mistaken emphasis on the past can do. While the majority’s reasoning seemed to criticize the law for being outdated, it actually did the opposite. It complacently praised past accomplishments and overlooked deep threats to equality in the present.

The Court observed that in 1965, the white voter registration rate in southern states was around 69 percent, the black rate only 19 percent. By 2004, the gap had shrunk to about 74 percent for whites and 73 percent for blacks by 2004.

“There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act,” Chief Justice Roberts concluded. “The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.”

On this basis, he drew the further conclusion that the past has solved our present problems.  Section 4’s work is over and done with. We don’t need it anymore.

But this reasoning ignores the fact that after 1965 Congress had to invoke Section 4 repeatedly to ensure that minority voting rights continued to be honored. It ignores too that Republican-dominated state legislatures are at this moment passing new laws to widen the gap that the Act’s continuing enforcement had narrowed.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg carefully documented these points.

It’s no wonder, then, that Douglass and King were so wary of the past.

This is why the best way to honor King’s great speech is not to remember it but to act on it. Indeed, his familiar words pull us so powerfully into the past that we might do better to forget about it – to recall a different speech delivered that very afternoon. John Lewis’s.

Today a Congressman, then a young civil rights activist, Lewis declared: “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation.  Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.  We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution.”

I think King would agree that the best way to honor August 28, 1963 is to understand democracy as he and Lewis did:  it is always uncompleted, and we must continue to act on its behalf. Now.

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July 12: Waiting for the Verdict

As we wait for the verdict in the Zimmerman case to be announced, I find myself hefting the weight of that word “wait” once again. It has such a long and heavy history in the lives and thoughts of black Americans. It keeps coming back like a bad spirit or a zombie. Wait. Wait. Wait. Will it ever go away?

The most famous words about waiting are Dr. King’s. Familiar as they are, they’re worth remembering today:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; … when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has been advertised on television, and see tears welling in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing unconscious bitterness toward white people; ….when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued by inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

Reading these words again today, waiting for a verdict that is sure to disappoint, can anyone not see the ghost of Trayvon Martin walking through them? Trayvon as a six-year-old boy being schooled about white folks by his parents? Trayvon as a teenager feeling clouds of bitter understanding – W.T.F?!? — forming in his mind? Trayvon in his last moments on the night of February 26, 2012, living as always at tiptoe and never knowing quite what to expect next: like, who is this creepy-ass cracker following me?

Once again we see the old claim of acting in self-defense put forward with the bland “innocence” that so enraged James Baldwin – whites’ denial of the fact that white racism has created the spectral, hooded blackness against which Zimmerman felt he had to “defend” himself.

Until the word “intent” recognizes that white racism shapes whites’ actions and attitudes in ways they are not conscious of – but are nonetheless accountable for – black Americans will go on waiting for justice. Until the word “malice” is understood to include racist fear among its meanings, many black Americans will go through life at tiptoe, fearful because they are feared. Until racism itself can be put on trial, we will all go on waiting — waiting for the verdict that finally puts an end to our waiting.