I know that I have railed against people using literally one line from one Martin Luther King, Jr. speech out of context. You have heard it, a lot. “I have a dream that my four little 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.”
This was, obviously to me, an aspiration. I came across an article from 2013, a half-century after the speech, which addressed a cultural debate.
“The meaning of King’s monumental quote is more complex today than in 1963 because ‘the unconscious signals have changed,” says the historian Taylor Branch, author of the acclaimed trilogy ‘America in the King Years.’
“Fifty years ago, bigotry was widely accepted. Today, Branch says, even though prejudice is widely denounced, many people unconsciously pre-judge others.
“‘Unfortunately race in American history has been one area in which Americans kid themselves and pretend to be fair-minded when they really are not,’ says Branch, whose new book is ‘The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement.'”
Two of King’s children, Martin III and Bernice, offered similar sentiments.
The “real” anti-racists?
Conversely, “Conservatives feel they have embraced that quote completely. They are the embodiment of that quote but get no credit for doing it,” says the author of the article [in the RightWingNews.com blog], John Hawkins. ‘Liberals like the idea of the quote because it’s the most famous thing Martin Luther King said, but they left the principles behind the quote behind a long time ago.'”
For me, the latter sentiment suggests, not only have we’ve all been to the mountaintop, but that we’ve gotten to the Promised Land. This is a reference to MLK’s speech in Memphis the day before he was assassinated. He says, “I MAY NOT GET THERE WITH YOU.” We had not, and have not, yet overcome.
So how do we assess this conundrum? We look at the data. And I’ve suggested before that we set aside slavery in the discussion because most people agree; Slavery Was Bad. (And those who think otherwise… well, I’ve got nothing.)
By looking at it, we see the failure of the 40 acres and a mule to come to fruition. And 4000 lynchings of black people, often as public spectacles; let’s have a picnic! Voter suppression still happens today. Property loss from New Deal policies that didn’t apply to black people to the GI Bill that didn’t apply to black people to roads going through neighborhoods where black people lived. Oh, and mass incarceration. And why Black Lives Matter. (RIP, Trayvon Martin. Ten years gone.)
Or we can talk about the lack of black representation in many areas and not just NFL ownership.
There is evidence that the information is easily retrievable. But we can’t talk about this because it might make us “uncomfortable. It especially might make our poor, innocent children, “uncomfortable.” So we build boogie men, such as Critical Race Theory, and shut down discussions about race. Because we’re all equal now.
And while we’re at it, let’s not talk about gay people or transgender people or the Holocaust because, if we do THAT, it’ll be traumatic for our children! (I’m talking about YOU, Florida.)
I’m recommending a post by Kelly Sedinger, which he wrote at the end of February 2022. It’s titled “History is not a feel-good story.” And touches on some of the issues I’ve addressed here. It links to a very good John Oliver video on the wringing of hands over CRT.
Kelly notes, correctly: “History isn’t about feeling bad or feeling good. History is about learning what we’ve done, the good and the bad, so we can make better decisions later.” OR we can just ostrich our way through life.