50 Years Later, A Dream Deferred

As I read through the text of his iconic speech given 50 years ago today, I can’t help but note the ways in which Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream remains deferred.  While many of the formal structures of segregation have been abolished, we have simply replaced them with the far more insidious shackles of colorblind ideology that masks inequality to those of us with racial and economic privilege.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

50 years ago, King described the reasons for marching 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

One hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

Sadly today we know that people of Color still face the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.  Our communities are becoming ever more economically segregated, and so long as people of Color remain disproportionately poor, we ensure that King’s dream remains deferred.

It’s sad to see the ways in which the horrors king described are still alive and well in the United States today:

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. (Today, 1 in 3 Black men are wrapped up in the criminal injustice system of the New Jim Crow).

Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. (Today, a Black person is killed by police officers every 40 hours, and extra-judicial killings of Latinos by police are on the rise).

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. (Yet 50 years later, not much has changed for those living in these slums and ghettos, whether in the north, the south, or anywhere).

There is much work to do to realize King’s radical dream, yet we do his agency disservice with constant conjecture about what he would or would not support today, and his words, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” have been hijacked by those who wish to maintain the unjust status quo.

Sadly, the legacy of racial justice in the United States since the March on Washington has been precisely what King warned against:

This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Gradualism is precisely the drug we’ve taken, and as such, little progress has been made.  We are still fighting to ensure that this republic makes good on its “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir . . . that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But we must not lose hope.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” . . . We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one . . . No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 

The legacy of King’s words in this speech of the March on Washington in general is to remind us of what work we still must do.

Let us not forsake the dream any longer, and let us no longer enforce the passive “peace” of injustice he spoke so powerfully against.

50 years later, let us not forget that King was a radical, a revolutionary, and the March on Washington was a cry for revolution.

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