I had the pleasure of running into Donna Brazile the other day and talking about the 50th Anniversary programs and celebrations for the 1963 March on Washington.
She noted that she had been asked by Coretta Scott King to serve as the National Youth Coordinator for the 20th anniversary celebrations in 1983 and showed me a vintage poster proclaiming “We Still Have A Dream – Jobs Peace Freedom”. Our shared remembrances and that poster got me thinking about how much America has changed, and how important Dr. King’s Dream was for a nation and a young black boy coming of age in late 20th century America.
The America that convenes on the Mall in 2013 to celebrate and commemorate Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a very different America from the one Dr. King spoke to in August, 1963.
While the vice-like grip of Jim Crow laws were slowly weakening across the country and “For Whites Only” signs no longer greeted those who sought relief at nearby water fountains on the Mall that hot August day, Dr. King surely knew that this moment would be less about the past and more about the future. His words would not only speak to those assembled, but would also press upon future generations the need to “take up the cause of freedom”.
In some respects, that iconic moment which launched an historic movement closed a particularly dark chapter in America’s history: a chapter which chronicled the burden of slavery and institutionalized discrimination; a chapter which imprinted segregated public accommodations and schools on the very soul of American life; a chapter in which the foundation of America—freedom and equality—was rocked by lynchings and fire bombings.
In that moment, Dr. King turned the page to reveal a new chapter for America—one we are still writing today—steeped in hope, yes, but desperate for opportunity. So, where are we fifty years later? How much of the Dream has become reality; and how much of our reality has faded the Dream?
We’ve elected a black man president of the United States and yet a black boy is still “profiled” to be a threat and killed because of it. African Americans have reached the pinnacles of industry and commerce, entertainment, sports and politics and yet black unemployment sits at 13.4 percent and the poverty rate exceeds 28 percent (46 percent for a single mother with children under 18). The black family and the black church—the “social safety net” of the black community—anchored the African American experience as we marched off plantations and ultimately on Washington.
But now 67 percent of black children live with one parent (black children are seven times more likely to have a parent in prison) and 68 percent of black babies are born to unwed mothers. African Americans have overcome the terror of police dogs and water hoses but find themselves three times more likely to be stopped, questioned and arrested on the streets of metropolitan America than Whites. The passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act guaranteed political and civil opportunities for full participation at the ballot box, but many African Americans now find that access under reconsideration in the face of new voter registration and voter ID laws and recent Supreme Court decisions.
Dr. King’s speech challenged the status quo of his time and now so must we. But we must first answer for our generation the question often asked of him: ‘When will you be satisfied?’
As Dr. King would reply, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “for whites only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
And yet today our actions at times belie the truth of Dr. King’s response. Put another way: are we satisfied? By our perseverance and ingenuity, courage and determination we built this country. Have we, in the process of assimilation, forgotten that we still have what is required of us to rebuild our communities? It seems now we are willing to give it away—whether it’s our political capital or economic power.
Do we not appreciate that if we are not satisfied then no one else can be satisfied for us?
The way others see us starts with how we see ourselves and how we express that to others. So, if we are willing to tolerate the killing of over 500 African Americans in a major metropolitan city in the course of one year—so will the rest of America. If we are willing to tolerate failing school systems and the continued poor education of our children—so will the rest of America. If we tolerate living in boarded-up neighborhoods or the redlining and “gentrification” of our communities that displace our parents and grandparents—so will the rest of America.
Fifty years later, our progress is measured by statistics, but it is also measured by our willingness to no longer be satisfied with the status quo and to make real the Dream for this and future generations. But even in this hour some ask “is the Dream still alive?”
The truth is the Dream did not die on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee because the Dream lives in each one of us. That, more than anything else, is the true legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The author, who served as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2009-2011, is an MSNBC political analyst.