“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King Jr. told that enormous crowd at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, “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 ….”
No. King’s soaring words ring hollow this Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018. In an America squirming under a president elected on a platform of barely concealed bigotry. With a president who, last Thursday, stood in the Oval Office and obscenely demanded our country accept fewer immigrants from black- and brown-majority countries and more from white ones, King’s dream of tolerance seems as far away as ever.
What did King do? What victory did he achieve? Won the right of black people to dine at luncheonettes that aren’t in business anymore? To ride at the front of rickety buses bouncing along broken up roads in America’s dying cities?
Prejudice is like water. It finds a way. Blocked from one path, it pushes to another. If your faith doesn’t permit you to keep blacks from sitting in your restaurant — a legal argument used in King’s time — then maybe it allows you to refuse to bake a cake for gay weddings.
That doesn’t seem much improvement in half a century. The 50-year anniversary of King’s assassination, America’s reward for his struggle to lead our nation away from hatred, is April 4. Expect more lofty words echoing against deaf ears, sliding unfelt through hardened hearts.
So instead of talking about King, let’s talk about a topic on his mind during that epic speech: slavery. “One hundred years later, the Negro is still not free,” King said in 1963.
Are blacks more free now than 150 years ago? Certainly. One hundred years ago? Certainly. Fifty years ago? In many ways, yes.
But what about the slaveholder and his moral descendants? Are they more free?
Nobody worries about them. We should. There was a double cost to slavery, remember: the destruction of black society, family life, self-assessment, the countless horrors and indignities visited upon slaves.
But there was also a cost to the slaveholder, an attitude essential for the system to work. What did you have to think about a human being in order to convince yourself that God Almighty intended this man or woman in front of you to be your property? Not just this slave, but his children, her grandchildren, onward into eternity?
You had to drink deeply from a poisoned chalice of false belief: that being white, you were superior to this man. That he, being black, was inferior. Your intelligence was greater; his less, by definition.
Sound familiar? Am I describing an antique worldview that died out in America in the 19th century? Or am I describing a basic, living tenet of the Republican Party? Does a third of America see Donald Trump as a genius and Barack Obama as an abomination? Judging men not by the content of their characters but by the color of their skin.
They’ll never admit it. The lies that Trump and his ilk use hourly are not accidents, but essential lubrication to keep the gears of their system turning. The White House still celebrated Martin Luther King Day. Trump, his lips still flecked by his condemnation of black-majority nations, nevertheless posed for his photo op.
Speaking of white Americans, King said this:
“They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
That is also true for Trump supporters and those who would rescue our country from their nightmare vision. The latter, calling for Trump’s impeachment, are missing the point. He is a symptom, not a cause. When Trump is finally hustled from the national stage, momentary relief will come, but the blindness and bigotry that set him there will remain strong in a third of the nation. Drawing them into the dream, making them finally understand that they are lifted up, not brought down, by the diverse wonder of humanity, will determine our nation’s future.