I Still Have a Dream
Today, January 15th, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King would have celebrated his 92nd birthday. And as I thought about Dr. King on the day of his birth, I wondered what he would think about where we are as Americans today. Certainly, we have seen immense changes that have uplifted Black people throughout the world. Yet, remembering him today, nearly 53 years after his death, I went back to the speech that propelled him into every American’s consciousness – His “I Have a Dream” speech. This speech has become one of the lenses that defines and describes the history of Blackness in America through lyrical prose. It gave voice to the experiences of Black people that began in the bellies of ships on the Middle Passage and traversed the slave-filled cotton fields of the deep south. It reverberated on the wind between the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the doors of the U.S. Capitol and beyond. This speech told our story as Black people and as Americans.
Interestingly, we find ourselves again witnessing the brutality of those whose hatred of others is so palpable that it caused them to attack the U.S. Capitol, the symbol of our democracy. Men carrying the Confederate Flag through the halls of our legislative home as they shouted “USA” mirrored images of men, two generations before them, waving the same flag through the streets of America, mouthing similar words of ownership and power. It was clear that there is much more to the I Have a Dream Speech than the singular lines that are pulled out for emphasis and punctuation at well-intended celebrations. As I re-read his speech, the events of last week rose up as a reminder of who we have been and sadly, who we still are.
Nestled within the power of his words from 1963, we find images, policies, and representations of the experience of Black, Brown, and White people that can be transported into our current reality…right now…today. In one instance Dr. King said: “We cannot be satisfied as long as a colored person in Mississippi cannot vote and a colored person in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” Whether it is Mississippi in 1963, or Georgia in 2020, his words describing the challenges of obtaining voting rights echo through our current fight to ensure that our right to vote is steadfast and sacred.
And as we kneel during the National Anthem and take to the streets in protest against the murder of Black people at the hands of the police, Dr. King’s speech functions as both a precursor and a magnifying glass. He said, “I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of your trials and tribulations. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by storms of persecutions and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.” His words from nearly 58 years ago, with all of our innovation and forward movement, still represents our struggles and our efforts today.
Most of us have heard the quotable lines from the I Have a Dream speech, and can anticipate hearing the lines spoken during MLK Jr. celebrations across the country. Most notably, mid-speech, lie the words that we have all come to know as one of the most potent lines of hope and aspiration: “I have a dream 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.” Or the nod to his hope for unity amongst all people in this line: “I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” But few of us have taken the entire journey that is laid out in Dr. King’s most seminal speech, so I am inviting you to join me in reliving his vision of the dream. If you don’t do anything else to acknowledge the birth and life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., take the time to immerse yourself in the entirety of the I Have a Dream speech. Listening to it is breathtaking as the lilting tone of his oration is magical. But I also encourage you to read it. Lift the words from the page, let them wander through your imagination, and allow yourselves to reflect on how (or if) your work in philanthropy lives up to the hope that he dreamt for all of us.
In the final and most poignant phrase of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream, he calls out to the heavens with a prayer for the ages, “When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men, and white men, Jews, and Gentiles, Protestants, and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
That prayer, the recognition of dreams of freedom for all who still bear the weight of oppression, remains our anthem and our call to be in service to others. From this platform within the comfort of philanthropy, I will continue to ask myself and others, what will we do to make that dream come to fruition? How will we use our resources to be aspirational…to dream…and to witness the moment when this part of Dr. King’s speech becomes a reality: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” What will you do?