Over the weekend I enjoyed a long-overdue conversation with a former colleague of mine, who works with underprivileged inner-city youth back on the East Coast.
Referring to the many problems he faces in the course of his work in troubled neighborhoods, he wondered aloud if the blights on these communities are what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed about so many years ago.
“Millions of single-mothers, the majority of prisons occupied by black males, rampant drug use,” he mused. “What would Dr. King say to these people if he was still alive?”
I responded that I couldn’t even imagine, but that I doubted the message would be radically different than what he preached all along.
As an ordained minister, I’m sure he saw the obvious contradiction between the innate dignity of all people as created by God and the policies of the day which considered the black minority as inferior to the white majority.
Weaving brilliant imagery of the children of slaves and slave-owners sitting down at the table of brotherhood with the soaring oratory of a Southern “preacher man” and deep Biblical allusions, King’s refrain stands as a masterful use of how rhetoric can instruct as well as inspire.
But to truly appreciate the vast scope of that dream, one must first understand the circumstances surrounding that time in American history.
While, up north, “sundown” communities enforced the desire to keep blacks and other “undesirables” from being in town after dark.
Children of different races went to different schools, ate at different restaurants, drank from different water fountains and, for all intents and purposes, were guaranteed very different destinies in this land of the free.
I grew up in the South and have had black classmates from kindergarten through college. I have lived in neighborhoods and worked for companies where my race was the minority. Among my friends you can find a broad cross-section of white, black, brown, yellow, or various mixtures and combinations of each.
The country my children and I now inhabit is a global community, and will likely only continue on that course. With the ever-increasing Hispanic population and the gradual disintegration of the “traditional American family,” the white majority will eventually become a historical footnote in the United States. While, economically speaking, this capitalist nation has long since sold its free-market soul to communist China.
So much has changed with the changing times, yet so much remains the same.
Racial discrimination, though prohibited by law, is easily manifest in other, far more subtle ways. While racist remarks are considered unacceptable to the general public, technology allows one to broadcast such ideas to a worldwide audience.
Observing America in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “I do not imagine that the white and black race will ever live in any country upon an equal footing, but I believe the difficulty to be still greater in the United States than elsewhere.”
At its root, inequality is always an issue of the heart, for it is wholly without reason, submerged in sinful pride and hatred. To be rid of this blight, one must first understand that no one is morally exceptional to any other.
Or, as the preacher man says: “There, but for the Grace of God, go I.”
Within every soul is the potential for good, evil, and every impulse along those polar opposites. What derives from this potential becomes a reality in our lives and helps define who we are.
So now, with the observance of the day set aside to remember the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let us continue to dream of a better day still to come.
That we may desire to be in harmony with He that shall “make all things new.”