“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” – the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963
This is “tomorrow.”
Meaning that unknowable future whose unknowable difficulties the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked half a century ago when he told America about his dream. If you could somehow magically bring him here, that tomorrow would likely seem miraculous to him, faced as he was with a time when segregation, police brutality, employment discrimination and voter suppression were widely and openly practiced.
Here in tomorrow, after all, the president is black. The business mogul is black. The movie star is black. The sports icon is black. The reporter, the scholar, the lawyer, the teacher, the doctor, all of them are black. And King might think for a moment that he was wrong about tomorrow and its troubles.
It would not take long for him to see the grimy truth beneath the shiny surface, to learn that the perpetual suspect is also black. As are the indigent woman, the dropout, the fatherless child, the suppressed voter, and the boy lying dead in the grass with candy and iced tea in his pocket.
King would see that for all the progress we have made, we live in a time of proud ignorance and moral cowardice wherein some white people – not all – smugly but incorrectly pronounce all racial problems solved. More galling, it is an era of such cognitive incoherence that conservatives – acolytes of the ideology against which King struggled all his life – now routinely claim ownership of his movement and kinship with his cause.
When he was under fire for questioning the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for instance, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wanted it known that he’d have marched with King had he been of age. And he probably believes that.
But what people like Paul fail to grasp is that the issues against which African-Americans railed in 1963 were just as invisible to some of us back then as the issues of 2013 are to some of us right now. They did not see the evil of police brutality in ’63 any more than some of us can see the evil of mass incarceration now. They did not see how poll taxes rigged democracy against black people then any more than some of us can see how voter-ID laws do the same thing now.
So there’s fake courage in saying, “I would have been with Martin then.” Especially while ignoring issues that would press Martin now.
No, being there took – and still takes – real courage, beginning with the courage to do what some of us are too cowardly, hateful, stubborn or stupid to do: see what is right in front of your face.
Because when King said, “I have a dream,” he was not, contrary to what some of us seem to believe, calling people to co-sign some vague, airy vision of eventual utopia. No, he was calling people to work, work until “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” This was not a sermon about the someday and the eventual. “Now is the time,” said King repeatedly.
So it was. And so it is.
We live in King’s “tomorrow,” and what he preached in that great rolling baritone at the temple of Lincoln 50 summers ago ought to inspire us anew in this post-Trayvon, post-Jena 6, post-Voting Rights Act, post-birther nonsense era. It ought to make us organize, agitate, educate and work with fresh determination. It ought to challenge you to ask yourself: What have you chosen not to see? And now, having seen it, what will you do to make it right?
Because, we face tomorrows of our own.
Thankfully, we move into them with the same elusive hope – and towering dream – of which King spoke, the one that has always driven African-American people even in the valley of deepest despair.
Free at last!
Free. At last.