Reflections on King’s dream 50 years later

August 28, 2013 

As the father of a 5-month-old, Oliver, I’ve been doing a lot of dreaming lately.

It’s the kind of dreaming that occurs while gazing lovingly at my son for timeless stretches. His serenity unleashes my purest hopes: for him, our family, community, world.

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I find myself reflecting — as a new father and an educator — on the state of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream.

Somewhat realized and too often unfulfilled, the dream is as important as ever.

It’s not just about Oliver. It’s not just about racial equality. It’s about justice and integrity for all living beings. And we have plenty of work to do.

My dreaming is quite influenced by King, having been introduced to him in my public elementary school.

I learned King’s famous words spoken during the March on Washington: “I have a dream that my four 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.”

I recognized those words, each time I heard or read them, as powerful and important to the history of my country. But they became more than just history as I began to teach those words and King’s many others.

When I was a high school social studies teacher, I would play an audio recording of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech for my students.

I would pass out a handout with the text of the speech and we would listen to every second of the nearly 20-minute speech. It is something to hear it.

We would reflect on, discuss and analyze the speech. “Has King’s dream come true?” I would ask.

“Some of it, but not much,” many of my students would say.

When I taught about King, I did not to focus only on one speech.

His dream was not limited solely to racial justice. The struggle for justice implicated everyone, regardless of nationality, place, culture, history, belief system.

My students and I watched the sobering “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series. Racial injustice, King felt, could not be understood if it was divorced from economic injustice.

I also immersed my students in the glorious music of the civil rights movement: “Oh freedom,” “If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus,” “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

In the wonderful tradition of folk music, we wrote and sang our own contemporary stanzas to “We Shall Overcome.” Some students wrote — and sang — about justice for undocumented immigrants, marriage equality, sustainable treatment of the earth.

Their stanzas outlined the dream today.

Through my teaching, King’s dream became a call to action for me and a litmus test for the present day. It still serves this purpose.

Of course, in some sense, the dream, as Langston Hughes wrote, is always deferred; it can never be complete. But, following Hughes, what happens to it?

Can’t there be milestones of justice and equality on a journey toward the dream? Where are we on that journey?

In a recent interview on “Democracy Now!” activist philosopher and professor Cornel West said the irony of the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech is that “Brother Martin would not be invited to the very march in his name, because he would talk about drones. He’d talk about Wall Street criminality.”

Wow.

That’s something for us to consider. Would King even have been at the anniversary march? If so, what would he have said? Aren’t drones and Wall Street greed barriers to realization of the dream?

Is the celebration in honor — or just in memory — of King and the larger march?

Is it about the dream today and in the future, or about the dream in 1963?

One of my son’s namesakes is Oliver Brown, the lead plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

The case was a consolidation of four cases, all of which sought to challenge the racist precedent of “separate but equal” public schools.

Brown wanted his daughter Linda to be able to go to school alongside white children, whose white-only school possessed necessities and amenities black children were deprived of. He wanted Linda to know and serve justice.

What Brown wanted for Linda and what King wanted for his children is what I want for Oliver.

It’s what I want for all children — and all people, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, faith, nationality and so on.

We’re not there — yet. And so I keep singing:

“The very best thing that we did right

“Was the day we began to fight

“Keep your eyes on the prize — hold on!”

Mark Kissling is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Penn State.

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