Every year for many years now, I try to read or listen to a recording of one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. This year, because we used an excerpt in our service at the Unitarian Universialist Congregation of Gwinnett from the American Dream speech given at Lincoln University on June 6, 1961, I chose to listen to the full speech. You can listen to the 30 minute speech it here. Lincoln University, located in Pennsylvania, is the first degree granting historically black university in the US, founded in 1854.
King gave this speech 55 years ago. I was two years old. I allowed my imagination to take me back into the world I knew in Birmingham, AL as a child. I remembered as I listened to both King and the crowd he spoke to at Lincoln University 55 years ago that my life-time ago there was this way of seeing life and human beings in this country. It affected both how black people saw themselves and how white people saw themselves. It was a vision constructed around segregation. In so many ways this vision of the way we were held black people back while it allowed white people to advance. Because this vision of the way we were was built upon the notion that white people were superior and black people were inferior, the whole vision was by its very nature infused with fear. Even the fears were different, though. This truth struck me over and over again as I listened to this great voice lay out a new vision.
Part of the truth that struck me was how almost 60 years ago there were leaders helping black people to see through the evil of that old vision and to see beyond the fears they had–fears that they would never be free, that their children would never have opportunity, that they as a people would never be equal sharers in this thing called the American Dream. What struck me more profoundly is that 60 years ago there were not leaders working just as passionately and intently to help white people see through the evil of that old vision and to see beyond the fears that they had–fears that they would lose pride as American citizens, that they would somehow be dragged backwards if the black community enjoyed progress, that the only way to be in the world was as superiors and inferiors, and if black people moved up it would necessarily mean that white people would move down. The only real efforts being made among white people was to quiet their fears and tell them that nothing was really going to change. Many white people believed that extra lie–and to this day think that nothing has nor needs to change.
We who are white are just beginning to do the necessary work on ourselves for anything like an American Dream to be a possibility for anyone. Our presidential election has sounded the latest call for why we must work on ourselves–we who are white–and determine what sort of vision can frame this thing called America so that all of its daughters and sons enjoy this illusive thing called freedom. The old evil of white superiority fueled this presidential election and we were horrified to see how many of our fellow citizens either hold that vision, or did not find that vision disturbing enough not to join the electoral vote. This is where we are, and where we are going requires our serious work.
I imagine today that Dr. King would tell us that, in the words found in the middle of this 1961 speech, that we have become a neighborhood, we black and white folks. He would acknowledge that we even live together in many neighborhoods, but I suspect he would observe the harder truth: we still have not achieved a clear brother and sisterhood. We still have that work to do. Serious work. Hard work.
We are going. And we will get there. I hope we will.