My good friend, the Rev. Dominique Atchison, wrote an excellent post today on how Dr. King’s words and deeds have been “white-washed” in the progressive church lately. That is to say, his specifically racial critiques have been largely set aside in favor of more general social justice critiques, such as his anti-war stance and his work on behalf of the impoverished. Rev. Dominique sees, and I do as well, a way in which the apparent desire to make Dr. King’s words continue to speak here and now, ostensibly by elevating his non-racial positions, makes the assumption that his racial positions are largely outdated and no longer relevant for our consideration today.
As if by taking the “WHITE’S ONLY” signs off the pool house and the White House, we have truly ushered in a new era of racial unity and justice.
Sorry – that’s just not how it works. In her article, Rev. Dominique references some “other” words from King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, ones you certainly won’t hear political conservatives appeal to in their efforts to twist Dr. King into an opponent of affirmative action. Check it:
As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
And here, to my seeing, lies part of the problem: SOME of the things on this list are, in fact, over with. These days, we (mostly) don’t have segregated motels and hotels. And signs that proclaim “For Whites Only” – (at least overtly) – have been taken down. So it can be tempting to declare, as President Bush did, talking about Iraq in 2003, “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!” – as if it weren’t 2012 and we didn’t still have racial justice issues (or, for that matter, Iraq issues).
We’ve made some progress on the overt stuff, sure. And that should definitely be lifted up and celebrated. But what about the rest of King’s list?
- Is police brutality against black and brown people over?
- Are high percentages of black and brown people still living in ghettos, small and large?
- Are people of color well-represented in public leadership roles?
- And more basically – can any of us honestly say that we live in a time when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”?
I don’t think we’re done yet. As we remember Dr. Martin Luther King today or any day, let’s please be honest about the fullness of his dream – that it was explicitly racial, because he lived in – and we still live in – a state of explicitly racial inequality. Let us give thanks for the great prophets of yesterday, as well as those today (you know who you are!), but let us critically examine their prophetic visions on an ongoing basis, lest we fall into self-deception about progress that actually has not yet been attained. As for the question, “When will [I] be satisfied”, today I will honor Dr. King by joining in his dissatisfaction, until justice, like water, finally rolls on down.