Every Martin Luther King Day, I take a moment to reflect on the past, present, and future of the civil rights movement. I’m just a young buck (relatively speaking), so I wasn’t alive to witness and experience the gross injustices that we read about and see pictures or movies of in history class—things like lynchings, the Watts riots, and a “separate but equal” policy that made segregation a “normal” part of American culture. But these are just things of the past, right?
As I sat at the annual Alpha Achiever breakfast last weekend commemorating Martin Luther King, I couldn’t help but wonder what Dr. King would think of society today. In trying to tap into his thinking, it was hard not to think of King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” from the 1963 March on Washington since it is easily his most recognizable and probably his most influential. The dream of the future is certainly optimistic: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
But it’s been hard to keep that rosy outlook in the last year or so. It’s not just the stories of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, or Freddie Gray that make me question where we stand on race relations as a country; it’s the divisive comments on TV, online, and on social media that suggest we haven’t really come as far as we would like to think we have. We may have integrated schools; we may have integrated other aspects of society; but we still need to work towards equality. Look no farther than Facebook or the comments section of a Yahoo News story to see just how polarized America has become.
In many ways, it feels like we have taken one step forward, but then two steps back with civil rights. I think a really valuable perspective comes from King’s last speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” delivered in 1968, only one day before his assassination. Dr. King suggested that, if given a choice of which age to live in, he would forego the opportunity to live in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, or during the Renaissance and instead live in the very age is was already living. He conceded though that:
Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.
Here in the 21st century, it still feels at times like “the nation is sick, that there is trouble in the land, and that confusion is all around”, but the promised land Dr. King saw from the mountaintop is attainable through the difficult days that still lay ahead. There is work to be done, but we can do it together. I don’t know about you, but I need to believe in the dream. I need to know that there is hope for the future, for the young people at Howard High and in schools across the country, for my son Justin and his little friends who will one day inherit the world from us. What kind of world do you want your kids living in? Let’s work to give it to them! Remember Dr. King through your actions and we’ll work on making his dream a reality.