I’ve seen many posts today commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as today marks the 44-year anniversary of his assassination. It goes without saying that every post I’ve read describes and shows respect for the impact he had on our nation. There is also a great deal of sadness and anger being expressed over the violent end of this non-violent man’s life. Despite the passing of time, it is clear that this is a wound that will never fully heal.
Dr. King was able to bring together many different types of people, and inspire them to action, often using nothing but his words. They are the kinds of words we don’t often hear in the public forum anymore: forceful yet reasoned, passionate without being hysterical, equally angry and optimistic. The power and grace of his public comments have ensured that they will be remembered for generations as an integral part of our shared history as Americans.
Among all of Dr. King’s speeches, the best known is surely what has come to be known as his “I Have a Dream” speech, given at the climax of the 1963 March on Washington. Dr. King describes this dream in various ways, but the most striking and resonant description is this:
“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.”
Forty-four years after Dr. King’s death, and nearly forty-nine years after this speech, Americans still haven’t reached that point. It’s fair to say that we are far, far closer to it now than we were then, and the election of President Barack Obama is the most obvious example of this shift. But we can also find far too many examples that demonstrate why the issue of race is still such a contentious one, yet another unhealed wound in today’s America.
To understand why, it’s important to mention both racial divides and racial inequality. Racial inequality involves systemic discrimination against people based on nothing more than skin color, and it results in unfair treatment in areas like education, law enforcement and justice, housing, commerce and civil liberties. When it comes to issues of racial equality, there are certain measures that can be taken by the government, and by communities and individuals, in order to combat this discrimination. Yet despite this, and despite all the work done by Dr. King and other civil rights leaders who have followed in his wake, racial inequality still exists in this country, in many different forms.
We run into a different but similarly important problem when faced with the issue of racial divides. Even if we reached a point where racial inequality could be effectively addressed and eliminated someday, those divides would remain. In a way, they are actually necessary. I hope to someday live in a world where Americans of color are no longer struggling to be treated equally and fairly, but I wouldn’t want the world to forget the struggles that brought them to that point. They are important to all of us, and they contribute to a deeper understanding of how valuable our freedoms are, and how great our responsibility is to protect those freedoms for every citizen. Still, it is a double-edged sword. The very racial battles that many have experienced, and still experience to this day, serve both to move people closer to equality, and to distinguish them from those with whom they seek to be equally treated. Only those people who have faced and fought discrimination can know just what that means and how it affects you. It’s something they can never share completely with those of us who didn’t have to fight for our freedoms. We can sympathize, but we can’t truly understand.
This is just the political context of all these issues, but racial divides are significant in a cultural context as well. Everyone comes from somewhere, and our cultural heritage is a big part of who we are and how we live. To recognize the cultural differences among us is necessary, but again, this can lead to an accompanying sense of classification or separation that often happens among many people.
As a white American, it’s sometimes tough to know how to navigate the territory of racial issues. I’ve grown up in a very diverse part of the country, and in a home with parents who are not racially biased. I’ve traveled a fair amount, and I enjoy and embrace the cultural differences I can see all around me. When I meet someone and get to know them, my ability to be friends with them or work well with them is never about the way they look or where they come from. I don’t feel as if race should be a factor in my interactions with people of color, yet I know it always is, whether I want it to be or not. And I also know that those racial divides are there, even if they don’t really affect the dynamics of my relationships with people on a day-to-day basis. I genuinely do judge people based on the content of their character, but I still recognize the significance of the color of their skin, and the fact that it can shape people’s lives in so many ways that I will never fully experience myself.
As we remember Dr. King today, it’s important to recognize both sides of his perspective – the bitter disappointment at the way things were, and the fervent hope that those things would change. Many in this country have those same feelings today when it comes to race, and both feelings are valid. We have so much left to do before we can say we are a nation of equal freedoms and equal protections. And certain factors may always serve to remind us of the significant differences between us. But the key is to come to a place where these differences are accepted and celebrated, rather than feared or penalized. Dr. King’s dream may not have been realized yet, but it hasn’t been abandoned either. It still resonates, it still inspires, it still guides.
Though there are many examples of the way people are still fighting for Dr. King’s dream today, I’ll leave you with just one. Virginia is not necessarily known as a bastion of progressiveness, particularly because of the heavily conservative nature of its current state legislature. But a non-profit organization there, the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC), is making efforts to change that atmosphere. They conduct programs and workshops designed to teach Virginians of all ages about diversity and tolerance. In a 4-day camp for high school students held earlier this year, the organization guided teens through exercises and discussions that promoted awareness and understanding of racial issues, and the ways they affect us all. The VCIC has put together a short video explaining what they do and why they do it, and it’s worth a look:
This sort of active educational approach is key to getting us all closer to Dr. King’s dream. And there’s no doubt that it’s making a difference. Dr. King spoke of the dangers of “gradualism” when confronting racism, and he emphasized “the fierce urgency of now”. Unfortunately, truly changing the intrinsic nature of American society and government is not something that can happen all at once. Programs like this, which allow kids to think and talk about diversity, will affect the way they approach racial issues in the future. It is hard to wait for the blossoms to emerge, but the fact that people are making efforts to plant the seeds of awareness and tolerance all over this nation is an important thing to recognize. In the words of one of the students who appears in the video, Tereika Grooms, “Change isn’t coming as fast as we want it to come, but it’s coming. It’s happening.” In my opinion, that’s something to celebrate today.