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Commentary :: Human Rights
pieces of the dream
23 Aug 2005
what's happened to king's dream?
pieces of the dream
-jeffery mcnary

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

Almost forty years to the August 28th day of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I joined a crowd of a few thousand gathered in the nation’s capitol to recall, reflect, and attempt the resuscitation of a coalition of activists with diverse causes and agendas…some then on life support…some now faded into boarded up storefronts.

On that afternoon, forty-three years ago, a youthful, southern, Black Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., stepped to the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and began his remarks. “Five score years ago, a great American , in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity”, he said. By the time the blazing sun began it’s descent, casting late afternoon shadows through the stone garden resting places of Arlington and Northern Virginia, King’s “I Have a Dream” oration had red-lettered the day.

Bob Dylan was there. Lena Horne was there, as was Paul Newman, Heston, Brando, Josephine Baker and many more, “fresh from narrow jail cells.” Julian Bond, a former Georgia State Legislator and current Chair of the NAACP was there, and not long ago shared with me that he, “had the best job of the day…”, serving up cold soft drinks to the celebrities. “I got to keep my arms, up to the elbows, in ice cold water for the better part of the day”, a graceful Bond recalled.

Forty-three years in some genres can be a long time, even a life time for some. Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison never saw forty. Neither did the vast majority of those whose birth names are etched into the black marble slabs of the Viet Nam Memorial abutting the site of the demonstration. Yet, in some fashion, the enthusiasm and sense of determination of those gathered in 1963, and the renewal of 2002, provided a delicious bite of promise and piece of the dream largely absent from the 2005 anniversary.

“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

The August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom came on the heels of bloody engagements throughout the south, as well as economic violence in northern cities. There were calls for passage of the then pending Civil Rights Bill, desegregation of schools and housing, job training and elimination of racial discrimination in hiring among other issues. The March had been initiated by A. Philip Randolph, a labor leader and vice-president of the AFL-CIO. Randolph was joined in his effort by the leadership of five major civil rights organizations in the United States. Whitney Young, National Urban League; Roy Wilkins, National Association of the Advancement of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); James Farmer, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); John Lewis, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and King, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This was the so-called “big-six”. The 40th anniversary found a loose knit coalition somewhere in the area of 100 groups, with Dr. King’s son, Martin Luther King, III (affectionately referred to as Tre by his posse), front and center. Young King comes across of being almost apologetic to a fault. Nonetheless, driven by his mother, he is sincere, in more than a Promethean fashion. African American males coming of age can rarely afford the Holden Caufield experience. Even those with educated, idealistic middle-class parents find Greek-like fraternities preferable to rolling with Crips or Bloods. Those around King, III couched the 40th anniversary as an event bringing together the sit-in generation with the hip-hop generation…a kind of Mahalia Jackson meets Grand Master somebody. Baring any last minute dramatic activity, the 42nd anniversary will delineate the insufficiency and failure of cosmetic initiatives posing as movements.

During the 40th anniversary commemoration, former SNCC activists had come together at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History to review their expectations in 1963 and compare the struggles of 2003. John Lewis, now a Congressman from Georgia, and the sole survivor of the “big six”, was joined by Rev. Walter Fautroy, a former non-voting delegate from the District of Columbia, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the then non-voting delegate from the District, and a host of others. “Bearing Witness to a Dream Deferred”, the forum was titled. That “deferred” shit has echoed for awhile in communities of color…always there… all to common…all too expectant…all too rerum naturum if you will.

Cong. Lewis (D-GA.) now serves on the Democratic Steering Committee, but as a young student participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides and endured savage beatings from racist mobs as well as police. Lewis is the real deal. “Young Black men and women, young people, young children 7 and 8...9, 10, 11 and 12 years old were being arrested, jailed. Bull Connor, the police commissioner, used the dogs and fire hoses on people”, a visibly moved Lewis recalled. “Medgar Evers was assassinated…and then you had President Kennedy speaking to the nation…when he said the issue of race is a moral issue. On June 14, 1963, I was elected chair of…SNCC. Eight days later I was invited to a meeting here in Washington at the White House…and it was in that meeting A. Phillip Randolph…spoke up and said, ‘Mr. President, the Black masses are restless and we’re going to march on Washington’. And you could tell by the very body language of the President that he didn’t like what he heard. He started moving in his chair, one side to the other side, and he said, ‘Mr. Randolph, if you bring all of these Negroes to Washington, and all of these Negroes in the streets, we will never be able to get a Civil Rights Bill from the Congress.’ Mr. Randolph responded, ‘Mr. President, Negroes are already in the streets.”

Forty years later there was no such meeting. There was neither message nor messenger from the White House. Forty-three years later, there is no commemoration.

“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capitol to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Those with a history in the trenches of the early movement were awkward in their attempts to balance the need for increased voter registration with an embrace of the hip-hoppers. There are those that now hold such efforts failed in the 2004 election cycles, with that generation appearing marginalized. At the gathering of SNCC veterans, Jesse Jackson, Sr. struck the pose, “I’d rather have an old Thurgood Marshall than a young Clarence Thomas”. But at the time, Jackson’s usual fire had been dampened by recent news of a “love-child”, he’d recently fathered with a young, former aide.

A transference of “the movement” from one generation to another was not the order of that day, regardless of what the well dressed young ministers from Morehouse wanted. If anything, it was a wake-up and welcome aboard thing. It had not been so long before the young King had faced a challenge to his leadership and had been rescued by the old guard, including Jackson. Aside from the dedication of a plaque to MLK, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a prayer vigil, and a poetry jam, the crowd from SCLC and the King Center brought little in the way of vision, demand, or dream.

One group, By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), took to the streets of Washington demanding the defeat of anti-affirmative action initiatives and a national boycott of Coors Beer, which, they claim, is a major financial contributor to the attack on affirmative action and civil rights. In the early spring of 2003, BAMN was instrumental in turning out over 50,000 demonstrators near the Supreme Court calling for support of affirmative action. Shanta Driver, BAMN’s fiery spokesperson, addressed a gathering of students and labor activists at the gates of Howard University prior to a five mile march to the Lincoln Memorial. “We are the leadership of the new civil rights movement. You are the builders of the nations future. There are still people in this society”, Driver said, “that are going to fight to realize the dream…not just commemorate what Martin Luther King Stood for, but also make clear that there’s a movement in place, a new civil rights movement, to realize the dream.”

One such person is Boston based Kevin Peterson, Executive Director of the New Democracy Coalition. Peterson spends much of his time garnering national support for the extension of the Voting Rights Bill, legislation scheduled to soon expire. When queried on the actualization of MLK, Jr.‘s “dream” Peterson remarked, “For the most part, Dr. King’s dream for basic social, economic and political freedom remains elusive. While we have certainly seen some progress made in the area of overt racists practices, our society remains deeply segregated with regard to housing patterns and usage of urban public education. These two realities alone reveal that we remain in a de jure system of apartheid that in some ways is no less insidious than the treatment directed towards Blacks in pre-civil rights era America”.

“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come backed marked ‘insufficient funds’. But we refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

Cong. Lewis recently voiced his concerns regarding the present state of America‘s people of color. “We need to pick up where Dr. King left off, and that is to humanize the American economy to meet basic human needs of our people. People need a little better of an income, people need jobs. Too many people are losing jobs. A large segment of the population is underpaid, some receiving starvation wages. That’s what we need to take care of.”

On the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the March, Republicans in California had initiated a recall petition geared toward ousting the incumbent Democrat. When asked about their effort then, Lewis said, “If that trend picks up and grows, it will make people much more cynical and less interested in the political process. We must find a way to put an end to what is happening in California, it must not be allowed to spread.” University of Maryland Political Science Professor Ron Walters took it a step further with, “ It’s probably a new trend because it’s a way that the Republican Party has of trying to seize power at the local level. They have done a good job, the radical right, seizing power of the national government. They now control the Supreme Court, the White House, and both the House and the Senate, and that’s a very formidable victory for them.” And Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., bounding up the stair of the Lincoln Memorial, pausing for photographs and signing autographs, said, “This is another attempt by the right-wing to de-stabilize government. They lost the election (California) and this is an act to sabotage democracy.”

On the eve of the forty-third anniversary, the Republican party, hardly known for it’s vision of Dr. King’s dream, maintains control of the Supreme Court, the Whit House, and both the House and Senate, the former bodybuilder, current Republican governor of California, attended a Rolling Stones concert in Boston, a city who’s Director of the Office of Civil Rights refused comment on the anniversary, a questionable war rages in Iraq, and Black leadership, regardless of generation, appears dangerously in search of stances

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of it’s creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

A recently released paper from the Joint Center for Policy and Economic Studies reads, “Because race and ethnicity help determine social interaction, black, white and Latino job seekers have access to different job networks. For blacks, the lack of quality job networks is strongly linked to housing segregation and blacks’ concentration in neighborhoods with high unemployment rates.”

The romantic tradition which trends to surround and enfold revolutions and movements appears to be presently taking a pass in the ameri-politic. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Ten years after the Oklahoma City bombing left 168 people dead, the guardians of American national security seem to have decided that the domestic radical right does not pose a substantial threat to U. S. citizens.” Yet, “In the 10 years since the Oklahoma City bombing, in fact the radical right has produced some 60 terrorist plots. These have included plans to bomb or burn government buildings, banks, refineries, utilities, clinics, synagogues, mosques, memorials, and bridges; to assassinate police officers, judges, politicians, civil rights figures and others; and to amass illegal machine guns, missiles, explosives, and biological and chemical weapons.”

For the most part, the pieces of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “dream” lay in jangled heaps across the lay of the land. Perhaps it’s because of the close configuration of class and promise. The past and current Secretary’s of State are black. The head of Time-Warner is African-American as are a host of other corporate titans and so-called “public intellectuals. Nonetheless, as Kevin Peterson says, “In the arena of social justice in the country, Dr. King’s ‘dream’ is still unfulfilled. To make it a reality we must press for new levels of commitment in terms of race-specific public policies and collective values.”

I couldn’t agree more, and it just doesn’t hold that the inhabitants of this republic would let such a significant sweltering August afternoon go unheralded 43 years later.

jeffery mcnary is a journalist and author of the soon to be released, “fumbling through the terrifyingly and troubling normal”.

Copyright by the author. All rights reserved.
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