Martin Luther King Jr. was an inspirational speaker, but also evolved into an astute, constructive critic of society. As we observe the holiday, guest columnist Stephan Blanford suggests Americans go deeper too.
I have a dream. One day my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
— Martin Luther King, Aug. 28, 1963
THOSE 34 words, uttered at the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of a quarter million, may be the most influential ever spoken in American civic life. As a result, they are recited by schoolchildren and idealistic adults every January.
This year, however, before evoking King’s name and those 34 words in schools and meeting places and columns like this one, we should avoid the tendency to limit Martin Luther King to merely “I have a dream.”
Please don’t get me wrong. In the homes where I and all of my black friends grew up back in the ’70s, those words encapsulated our hopes and dreams for full participation in American society. And those words were why there were always three pictures on the walls; Jesus, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Usually in that order.
For those of us bruised by a painful presidential campaign, I believe [King] suggests that we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and continue to strive toward the goal of a beloved community.”
But, as author Michael Eric Dyson suggests, those 34 words have been frozen into America’s psyche because it is more convenient to celebrate this simple passage than to contend with King’s evolution as a leader and critic of American society. Dyson notes how King reached his zenith not in 1963, but only once he sharpened his ability to analyze and critique American society. We would be better served to recite the words and ideas King used to justify his focus on poverty and other legalized and systematized injustices on his annual day of commemoration, Dyson argues.
King visited Seattle only once, in November 1961. He spoke powerfully to students at the University of Washington, and later to the student body at Garfield High School, emphasizing the importance of education to transform their lives and neighborhoods. King believed that quality education should not be merely a means to a career, but also to an improved society — what King later described as a “beloved community.” Those are goals that our schools continue to strive for today. The students of 1961 ate this up — in my Central District neighborhood, I still hear stories about King at Garfield.
Unfortunately, were King walking through the halls of Garfield or many of America’s schools today, he would be appalled. Despite the best efforts of many educators, too many of our schools produce outcomes as unequal in 2017 as they were in 1961. Seattle Public Schools has the fifth largest white-black achievement gaps of any large city in the nation, and our dropout and discipline statistics are still too closely correlated with race, ethnicity and poverty.
John Diamond and Amanda Lewis, in their book “Despite the Best Intentions,” suggest that, through seemingly colorblind policies and practices, we privilege some children and neglect or punish others. His research is eerily familiar to anyone spending time in our city’s schools. And similar critical analyses implicate other institutions of our community. Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” destroyed the false discourses of fairness in our criminal-justice system.
These and other critical analyses, similar to those that Dr. King spoke of in the years after the “I Have a Dream” speech, could be the basis of reforms that might one day permit our schools and institutions to become part of the beloved community. A place King described where poverty, hunger and homelessness don’t exist and where racism and bigotry are replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of brotherhood.
If we choose to listen, King continues to speak to us, as he spoke to the students back in 1961. For those of us bruised by a painful presidential campaign, I believe he suggests that we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and continue to strive toward the goal of a beloved community.
That striving might involve taking up the sharp critical analyses of writers and leaders of our day and integrating their words into the work that we do in schools and businesses and city halls. Or it might be resisting the popular narrative that our society is colorblind and “post-racial” because we had a black president — nothing could be further from the truth.
Striving might include holding our leaders accountable for measurable progress reforming our broken institutions. And it might include on the ground anti-racist work that we do in our homes and schools and businesses and neighborhoods and in this world.
With these actions, we come much closer to truly honoring the life and the sacrifice of Dr. King.