An Unfulfilled Dream by Venessa Schade-Bowers


On January 15, 2013, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 84 years old. Reflecting on the day that honors him always leads me to wonder just what this man would think of the world today. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his profound “I Have a Dream” speech (August, 28, 1963).  Had he lived, would he believe that President Obama, who will deliver his second Inaugural Address to the nation on the day that we honor Dr. King, was the fulfillment of his dream or would he believe as Tavis Smiley suggests, that the President is a down-payment on the dream (January 20, 2013 commentary on CBS)? I wonder.


What would he think about the limits of freedom for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters? What would he say about this fight over reproductive rights and freedom for women? What would he suggest we do about gun violence, especially in the wake of Newtown, Connecticut? What would he preach as a way to assist us in restoring some sort of brotherhood/sisterhood with people who are different from us? Dr. King once said that “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” It seems to me that many of our backs are bent and I wonder what it will take for us to stand up.


Let’s take a look at history for a moment:


To begin, it is important to remember that everything that happened in the 1960s was seeded in the 1950s. People were filled with uncertainty after the end of World War II especially because for one reason, they were now “living with the bomb.” This fear was incubated by segregation, oppression, and isolation. Fear and uncertainty can be contagious.


Dr. King taught that “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” During the 1950s a woman’s biggest fear was not being married. Her BIGGEST fear. Today many women say that their biggest fear is being raped. And if she is raped, that she will become pregnant. Worse still, there is legislation proposed in Congress that would allow her rapist to sue her when she gets an abortion in a state that allows it, if she was unlucky enough to be raped in a state that does not allow abortion. WHAT?  Is that the type of interrelated structure of reality Dr. King was talking about? I think not.


Also during the 1950s, McCarthyism was a huge thing to fear – what if we were investigated for “Un-American Activities” and what the hell were they anyway? Well, our professional careers and in some cases, our very lives would end (some people who were investigated by this fear-based organization committed suicide). During this time, words like “Democrat” and “Liberal” were equated with communist sympathizing and therefore, un-American. Sound familiar? Today, we hear phrases like “Liberal Media,” “Liberal Conspiracy,” and “Liberal Bias.” We believe that “liberals” are going to take our guns while still allowing abortions. We are still apoplectic with fear because we are uncertain. We remain silent on issues that are personal and political. Often, we care only about ourselves but do nothing to advance opportunities for everyone.

During the 1960s, we know that a good portion of people were fighting for civil rights for African Americans and women. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that civil rights were being fought for on behalf of gay and lesbian people. We have yet to see a real fight for equality for First Nation’s People or Latino people. Are these folks’ rights less important than other people’s rights? Think about that for a minute, because according to Dr. King “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Why do we not speak up and stand up for these folks?


There is a great debate raging in this country right now about gun control. We have seen in the last several years an increase in gun violence as well as an increase in mental illness in this country. We wonder if there is a correlation between the two. However what we know for sure is that for every fatal gun shooting there are three non-fatal shootings. Does that not seem like something we should talk about with patience and without political rhetoric? Should we not discuss the fact that more people are buying guns, especially assault weapons since the Newtown, Connecticut massacre? Just as recently as January 19, 2013, five people were accidently shot at National Gun Appreciation Day in three states (Indiana, Ohio, and North Carolina). One of the people shot actually shot himself. ( These are supposed to be people who know how to handle guns! The unfounded fear of the government taking guns from citizens is shocking. No one has said anything about overturning the Second Amendment. They’ve only said maybe one doesn’t need to have 30 bullets in an assault weapon to shoot an unarmed deer. My opinion is that if you can’t hit the deer in 2 shots you need to go to the grocery store to purchase your venison. You certainly don’t belong owning a gun if you can’t shoot straight. But nonetheless, that’s not the debate. I’m not really sure what the debate is because all I hear is fear. From all of us. One radio call-in listener went really far when he told Shannyn Moore that President Obama orchestrated that massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school to win the election – but the shooting occurred after the election – a month and eight days after the election as a matter of fact (Shannyn Moore; And to that statement, I can only share another quote from Dr. King which states “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” I truly believe that people are smarter than this but fear makes us stupid. Literally.


It also seems that people in this country are not only polarized, they appear to be filled with hate. We don’t disagree with people on the other side of the political spectrum – we hate them. We don’t disagree with liberal or conservative thinking, we hate it. We don’t argue with fiscal irresponsibility, we hate it. We hate TV characters, our neighbors, our leaders, and sometimes our spouses. We often hate ourselves. And as we do this, we sink further into darkness. Sometimes the darkness is mental illness. Sometimes it is addiction. Sometimes it is isolation. And sometimes it becomes rage. And we act on that rage and darkness. We are cruel to each other. We take pleasure in the humiliation of our fellow (wo)man. But Dr. King said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Are we willing to try love?


So, in all, what would Dr. King think today? My guess is that he would think that much is still left to be done. That we commodify him and package what he said as symbolism but rarely engage in the real work of social change. Some things are better, to be sure. For example, not so long ago woman like me, born into a poor, working class family of immigrants, could go to college and earn three degrees. The women’s movement did that for me. We see an African American president in the White House. Without the Civil Rights movement, that could never have happened. We see interracial and inter-faith marriages working. We see gay and lesbian folks marrying (albeit in only a few states, but it is happening). We see more tolerance in unexpected places. But. We are still afraid of each other. We covet our neighbors’ wealth, families, spouses, and things. We do not honor our parents and grandparents. We do not take care of each other. And far too often in the face of adversity, we do nothing but wring our hands. And in the end, Dr. King said that “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Where do you stand? For what do you stand?


I challenge all of us to reach beyond the paralytic fear we live in – that cynical space of criticism of everything and foster a way in our own lives to pragmatically reach for that dream Dr. King had for all of us. Because it is still really, only a dream. Dr. King has been mythologized and idolized and that turns him into a commodity to be bought and sold. We can quote him and talk about his dream but until we leave our homes and extend our hand to another, we dishonor him. The day that we are supposed to remember him becomes nothing more than a day off work or school. It means nothing. However, if we try to be our best person everyday – even if we fail, we do pay homage to this man – this human…this fallible person. And we become the better for it.


Bright Blessings


1 comment so far

  1. Harold P. Donle (Butch) on

    A great piece. My only comment is that you did not mention his Poor People’s campaign. King would be appalled at the economic inequality running rampant in this country. I hope people remember that he was killed while leading a labor strike in Memphis.

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