SCLC Collin County
From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what history has noted as the I Have a Dream speech. It was the accumulative result of many years of agonizing over the plight of African Americans in a nation whose history had been tarnished by episodic events emanating from the slave trade, the plantation system, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the devastating effects of segregation.
Glowing optimism ensued as the possibility of a new day was dawning upon the plains of America. While much was still left undone, many believed that the pathway to equality was in sight. The Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Bill, though in embryonic stages, were showing signs of engagement in the legislative annals of Congress. History documents that these two pieces of legislation were signed into law with the prompting of President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 and 1965, respectively.
Having been wrought within the contextualization of the period, optimism promoted the belief, though erroneously, that integration, the assumed reality that all was to be well in the arenas of housing, criminal justice, health, employment, education, religion and economic opportunity for all, would give way to equity on all levels of human involvement irrespective of race, and that such an ideological stance would eventually eradicate outdated notions of mistreatment.
James Cone, the eminent theologian from Union Theological Seminary and the father of Black Theology, informs the world that King’s dream for America by 1968 had largely transformed into a nightmare. With Malcolm X, he could well declare, “What is looked upon as an American dream for White people has long been an American nightmare for Black people.”
What caused this radical shift from dream to nightmare? Among an array of other things, King’s dream was providentially downgraded by national and world atrocities. In America, he witnessed Black youth being killed in urban towns and cities; Economic conditions relating to housing and unemployment not fit for human dignity. He saw impending poverty on a multitude of levels. As one having been jailed on multiple occasions, he saw injustice in its most dire form and unequal opportunities for minorities in their pursuit of a decent and meaningful education. On the international level, he could not justify the expending of funds to fight wars in Southeast Asia and other places throughout the world using billions of taxpayers dollars while American citizens were in unbelievable poverty.
Ironically, history is a trilogy. It is comprised of the bad, the good and the ugly. As a nation, from its inception, America was conceived in racism. The taking of land from Native Americans and relegating them to reservations, the enslavement of fellow human beings, the cleverly disguised notion of integration, the claiming of “justice for all,” are dynamics of a culture replete with engrained notions of good, only to be exposed for what it really is.
To be fair, America has long been the champion for human rights. No one can honestly claim that it is not a great country. But is it one that practices justice and equal opportunity for all? I think not. When Baltimore, Cleveland, Miami, McKinney, Charleston and most recently Charlottesville, Virginia, are considered, one has to wonder as to what extent we as a nation have invested in the realities of life for all its citizens. Racism, classism and bigotry, in all their forms, are evident throughout American culture. Malcolm’s nightmare (prior to Mecca) and King’s dream (prior to 1963) have been reversed in ways unimaginable.
If America is to confront the realities of the times, it must understand them to be a consortium of the triliological process – the good, the bad and the ugly. If it does, perhaps the disturbance that it evokes could become the catalyst for constructive dialogue and implementation, and the perceived need for confrontation will be greatly diminished.
Time is running out. Let each of us be the redemptive tool for human redemption seasoned by, and with, the grace and power of God. In the words of the late Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays of Morehouse College, “Aiming for a goal and missing is not failure; low aim, not aiming at all is failure.”
Dr. Charles E. Reese is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Collin County.