19 January 2009

"I Have a Dream Because..."

I cannot bear the thought of self-righteous contentment.

When I started school at Townsend Elementary in the Hazelwood School District, every year to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr Day our teachers would have us write an essay with this title, presumably to enter into some regional or national contest. I hope there were different grade levels, because when a 1st grader tries to sit down writing about the dream of MLK, one of two things was bound to happen: (1) said 1st grader would probably write about the dream he had last week while snug in his bed about monsters, lollipops, dinosaurs, sports, or racecars, or (2) said 1st grader would go about plagerizing a report about Martin Luther King lifted primarily from the first encyclopedia he found at the library.

By the time I was in 4th grade, now at Commons Lane in Ferg-Flor, the MLK essays were gone, and instead our class did extensive (for 4th graders) poster board projects during February for Black History Month. Although our class was doing projects on a wide range of historical black figures, from politicians to athletes, to doctors and soldiers, I wound up with another project on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Beyond the photocopy of a picture the office secretary made for my poster, the only thing I really remember about my project is that my father made a point to note that I was doing "another Martin Luther King project." As a nine year old, my impression of "another MLK project" was that it was a perfectly natural thing to study yearly - the same way grade school students study the pilgrims every year. Looking back now as an adult, I still don't completely know what to make of my father's words.

Did they mean nothing?
Were they similar in rhetoric to the crowd that questions why there is not a "White History Month?"
Did he wish I could study a different black historical figure?

I guess I've spent fifteen years questioning my father's racial prejudices (or lack thereof). I noticed when we stopped going to some restaurants because "they weren't as clean anymore." I heard my mother say that a certain place was too "dark." On the other hand, I saw him build a new house in Florissant several years ago when it would have been easier to flee to O'Fallon or St. Peters like so many others this decade. Even the fact that we settled in North County in 1987 when we moved here instead of whiter, south county could account for something.

However, a man's questioning of his father and his youth is not what's really important today - its much too insignificant and of much too small a scale. Tomorrow morning at 11am Central Time, Barack Obama will be sworn in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building, looking back in the direction directly opposite where King gave his "I Have a Dream..." speech in 1963. I hope that the historical poetry of that is not lost on him tomorrow. But how did we get here, and why was this day so long in coming?

"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."

Many people have evaluated the 2008 election and judged that Obama getting more than 90% of the black vote was his key to success. That is a true statement. Kind of. The significance, however, is not in what percentage of the votes he obtained, but in the number of votes he created. Democratic candidates have historically gotten about that percentage of the black vote in elections, so that is nothing new. The difference, I believe, is in the words from King's speech. The Voting Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed that "Negro in Mississippi" federal protection to vote, but perhaps that "Negro in New York" did not believe he had anything to vote for until 2008.

It's important, also, to not confuse the increase in voting from black communities with the mere presence of a black candidate. If merely inserting a black candidate onto the ballot were the answer, then the Rev. Jesse Jackson's efforts in the 1980s would have been more successful. I think the difference was Obama's ability to inspire. President-elect Obama was able to inspire the public's belief in vision and dreams similar to the way Dr. King inspired in the 50s and 60s. It's also worth noting that Obama and Dr. King both have also been criticized as radicals and socialists. The lessons of history also show that it is never the moderate who changes thoughts and actions, but the revolutionary, or the radical.

My final hope for President Obama is the same that King had for the civil rights movement. For so many buying into the hope that Obama represents, 2008 is not the end, but rather, the beginning.

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Thanks for sharing!