On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”, so many people are pontificating over the speech’s ongoing legacy, what it means today, what Dr. King would say and advocate for in our time, etc., etc. I don’t feel I’m creative or steeped enough in the issues of race and racial politics to add much to the discussion.
But I can share what King’s speech means to me and how his legacy inspires me forward, especially as a middle-class white male whose roots hail from the south and the midwest. (Yes, I grew up surrounded by overt and subtle racist attitudes in my family.)
Martin Luther King, Jr. died six years before I was born. By the time I became aware of him, King had already been “exalted to sainthood” as the great civil rights leader whose work, speeches, and writing forever changed the shape of racial equality and race relations in America. It took a long time for me to step through that misty shroud of sainthood surrounding King’s legacy to look carefully at his leadership, vision, and most especially his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.”
What I’ve found is an endearing vision for all of America, black and white, that is still struggling to be actualized today. That vision is a call to action. It’s not enough to simply proclaim liberty, equal humanity, and equality of opportunity for all Americans. We must all work to secure that liberty and equality for all people. That’s justice. Justice is something we do, not just preach.
King’s speech also lifted up a vision for basic harmony and fellowship between white people and people of color. That part has impacted me the most. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t think I’m superior or claim a greater seat of privilege than people of color. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t hold hatred or bitterness towards people of color. I can say I’m not a racist because I don’t purposely avoid or try to keep myself away from people of color.
But as I let King’s “I Have a Dream” speech sink in more deeply, I can see an area of racism that still exists within me and many others that creates a barrier to full harmony and fellowship. This racism manifests itself as fear and ignorance. It’s mistrust and presumption, formed from a lack of intentional relationships and experience.
We saw this form of racism on full display with the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin tragedy, trial, and fall-out. Blacks and whites clearly misunderstand, falsely characterize, and at times demonize each other in ugly ways. Meanwhile, no one in the midst of the conflict would claim to be a racist! However, if we’re all honest, our failure to truly understand and trust each other is a layer of racism we have yet to overcome. It cost Trayvon Martin his life. And George Zimmerman? I can’t imagine him ever living a normal, everyday life ever again.
Martin Luther King’s work has challenged me to combat this form of racism by intentionally getting to know, love, and work with people of color. Of all the diversity of friends I have, I’m blessed to have several African American friends with whom I can talk about anything. And when a question of race comes up, we can talk about it point-blank without anxiously couching our words so as not to offend each other. I trust them. They trust me, and that has allowed me to learn so much about how a person of color sees the world and issues of race and justice. In fact, I’m always humbled by what I don’t yet know or appreciate within people of color. It’s not a question of agreeing or disagreeing. It’s all about understanding, which builds basic empathy and solidarity, which in turn builds trust and intimacy.
In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville argued that in order for America to fully overcome the effects of slavery, three prejudices must be conquered: the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of race, and the prejudice of color. He couldn’t be more correct. De Tocqeville succinctly identified the three attitudes behind American racism. I restate them this way: the prejudice of superiority/inferiority, the prejudice of segregation, and the prejudice of fear and suspicion of the other. To date, we have come a long way in overcoming the first two. And I think we still have a long way to go with the third prejudice of fear and suspicion before we can ever say that we are a post-racial America who no longer feels the effects of one race having forcibly enslaved the other. O Lord, within me, remove any trace of suspicion, fears, mistrust, and ignorance that would keep me from fully loving, receiving, and living in absolute harmony with people of color. Only then can I say I am no longer bound to the evils of racism. Amen.
Even so, I’m passionately convinced that King’s dream is not a mere pipe dream. It can find its fulfillment in us. In some ways it’s already happening. And in time, his dream of a post-racial America will be a fully incarnate reality. In the mean time, I want to do my part by naming and casting out any racism within myself. I want to work to assure liberty and equality for all people. And I hope you’ll join me!