Tuesday, January 22, 2008

On having more than dreams

Okay, so this may not be the most timely of posts, since Martin Luther King, Jr., Day was yesterday, and all I posted about was Scientologists, and that's 'cause I shamefully spent most of the day on the couch with popcorn and soap operas and a splitting headache when I was perfectly capable of going out and doing at least one of the many good deeds being done throughout Birmingham in honor of the holiday.

But what's up with the "I Have a Dream" speech?

Don't get me wrong, now. It's an awesome and very moving speech. It's well-written, of course, with great parallelism and imagery and a rhythmic kind of poetry that I think you have to actually be a minister to perfect. And of course it sends a great message of cooperation and tolerance and acceptance and unity and peace, one that was practically unheard of in the general population at the time. As oratorical rallying points go, it's not a bad one.

But every time MLK Day rolls around, the speech gets played on the news, and schoolchildren stand up and recite it, and they have activities where they write their own dreams on construction-paper American flags and post them on bulletin boards, and organizations have Dream Luncheons and I Have a Dream Tolerance Symposia and everyone dreams of little black boys and girls holding hands with little white boys and girls.

And every time, I wonder if that sixth-grader really knows what words like "interposition" and "nullfication" mean when she says them, or if we all know whether or not we're "engag[ing] in the luxury of cooling off" or "tak[ing] the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," or if, really, anybody actually listens to the speech anymore or if we just let the words roll over us like the prayers we've been saying in church since toddlerhood ("Our Father, who aren't in heaven...").

It's nothing wrong with the speech. It was then and remains revolutionary and powerful. But it, like the Lord's Prayer, like the Pledge of Allegiance, suffers for repetition if we never take the time to break it down by line and phrase and appreciate what's really being said. I think we might all benefit if we occasionally swapped out that most famous and worthy of speeches for some of his equally profound ones that get less attention but could, through their sheer novelty, make a little more impact -- and in so doing, honored the man not for a moment of oratory inspiration but for a lifetime of work that still has an impact today.

Last year, I posted from this April 1967 speech:
And so, I conclude by saying today that we have a task, and let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction.

Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.

Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.

Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.

Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.

Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education.

Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.

Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied.


Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.

Three years earlier, Dr. King had said this in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.

If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama, to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are travelling to find a new sense of dignity.

This same road has opened for all Americans a new ear of progress and hope. It has led to a new Civil Rights bill, and it will, I am convinced, be widened and lengthened into a superhighway of justice as Negro and white men in increasing numbers create alliances to overcome their common problems.

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him.

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

I believe that even amid today's motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land.

"And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid."

I still believe that we shall overcome.

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