Cepeda column: King’s dream still hasn’t come true
CHICAGO — When I was in college, my roommate and I would together drive the six hours to our southern Illinois campus the day before the spring semester started. Our tradition was that, while my friend took a turn driving, I would read aloud Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which was printed in our local newspaper annually on the Monday commemorating the activist.
That was a quarter of a century ago — before our first black president seemed to have made good on the promise of an America that could see beyond race.
It was also before white supremacists seized on King’s ideal of not being judged by the color of one’s skin but by the content of one’s character in order to push back against what they perceive as rampant racism against whites in the form of affirmative action and other preferential treatments for historically marginalized people of color.
And it was before blacks, as well as others of color, wondered whether being “good” (or, in fact, “twice as good as whites” and hoping to at least attain “half as much”) was really the way to gain equality in a country that refused to see the lasting, daily impact of the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era.
It was at a time when, in public schools across the country, trotting out the “I Have a Dream” speech in mid-January and then discussing King — along with Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson — during a few social studies lessons in February was considered super progressive.
And it was long before African Americans would look critically at King’s life — such as his purported sexism and marital infidelities — and consider how his legacy of nonviolence is often used to point out the failings of today’s more aggressive, less polite Black Lives Matter movement. (Don’t miss Mychal Denzel Smith’s electric 2018 essay “Is King All That We Are Allowed to Become?” in The Atlantic.)
“I Have a Dream” holds up through the ages, but it’s not difficult to imagine that King would have hated his “day” being the prequel to a single month out of each year when black people are recognized as important, positive contributors to the greatness of America.
While the month does give saintly treatment to a handful of very important black icons, those same icons would probably be horrified to learn that Americans’ interest in outstanding, important and pivotal black people ended, more or less, in the ‘60s.
In a perfect world, Black History Month — like the months celebrating the heritage of women, Latinos/Hispanic, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans — would be every month, just like white history is celebrated. They are not separate, they are equal.
Since perfection does not describe how history is taught in the public schools or reported in the media, it falls on us to seek out alternative sources for information in February.
The Civil Rights History Project of the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov/collections/civil-rights-history-project/) is a great place to bookmark on your web browser. This collection couldn’t make it easier to read an article or essay on a little corner of history, such as the role young people played in the fight for civil rights or how music fueled the movement.
Even more enticing are the many video-recorded oral histories of people who lived in the communities struggling to win their civil rights and what their everyday lives were really like. Just prepare your chest to tighten — these are powerful, emotional stories.
This idea to explore black history might be one we return to, or it might fall by the wayside as we navigate busy, hectic lives. But, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the chances are high that you’ll see a copy of his famous speech scroll across your news feed or posted in your social media streams and notifications.
Take a moment to read through the speech. It’s not long. And it remains tragically relevant today.
While there’s no comparing living conditions for some African Americans in the Jim Crow South with the lowest-income blacks today, it’s still true that, regardless of educational attainment, many often still live on a “lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
And, for people of all races and ethnicities, King’s words ring out as strongly today as ever, because now is absolutely still “the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @estherjcepeda. (c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group
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