Dream vs. Reality: Understanding “I Have a Dream”

This is a slightly edited version of a piece that I originally wrote January 21, 2008. Barack Obama hadn’t even been elected president at this point in time. Breonna Taylor was only 13 years-old, while Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice weren’t even born yet. As a nation, we were on the verge of a time in which some people claimed the United States had become “post racial.” I wasn’t one of those people, and I’m still not one of those people. Today, January 18, 2021, as we celebrate the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are facing dark times and uncertainty unlike any in my life time (and I’m getting old). The following has been edited slightly, primarily to make it a bit more up to date.

Originally, I hadn’t planned on writing anything to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, because I wrote something last week on his actual birthday. But I’ve been reading a fair amount about him lately, his legacy, and the current state of race relations in this country. Many people have interesting things to say, and interesting points of view. But since none of them are David F. Walker, there is nothing they have to say that is all that important. Which is why I am humbly submitting a few things that I would like to offer up for consideration.

First of all, if you have never heard Dr. King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety, please do so now. I have posted it below.

There are many things interesting about this speech, but what I find most interesting—and by “interesting” I actually mean “disturbing”—is that very few people know this speech by heart. When I was in high school, I actually learned the entire speech and could recite it from memory — that’s how important it was to me then (and still is now). The entire speech runs approximately 17 minutes, but the parts that people remember—the parts that made history—come from the final five minutes. These final five minutes are when Dr. King, apparently discarding the notes he was using earlier, changes the dynamic of his speech, and launches into what most people think of when they think of “I Have A Dream.” These five simple words have come to define a historical place and time in the United States history, and have taken on as much importance as “We the people,” “Four score and seven years ago,” and “May the Force be with you.” Sadly, most Americans probably know more about “may the Force be with you” than they do about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The same is true for “I have a dream,” which most Americans (hopefully) know was said by Dr. King. But how many know the date it was said, where it was said, or the circumstances under which it was said? The answer to all of these questions is infinitely important in understanding why “I have a dream” is so memorable and important, while at the same time little more than a whimsical fantasy upon which far too many people have staked their lives.

Before I go any further, let me state for the record that I am not trying to undermine or diminish anything Dr. King said during the final five minutes of his speech. Those five minutes and the five words he repeated throughout that address were infinitely important in helping bring about some very real changes in this country. But the truth of the matter is that a dream, in the context of Dr. King’s speech, can be defined as “an aspiration, goal or aim.” I suppose you could also make the argument that within the context of how America was in 1963, when he gave that speech, that a dream could also have been pessimistically defined as a “wild or vain fancy; a vision voluntarily indulged in while awake; daydream; reverie.” But no matter how you define the word dream, what Dr. King spoke of in the final five minutes of his speech—the only part of the speech anyone has committed to memory—was not about something that was real. You can call it a goal, a fantasy or bullshit. But the truth is that in 1963 his dream was not real, and though the dream itself may continue in 2021, it is still not real.

While those final five minutes of King’s speech were filled with the hope and desire for a better world with racial equality, the first twelve minutes of the speech is not about a dream, but about reality. For twelve minutes Dr. King lays out the truth about racial injustice in this country. And many of these truths are still as real as they were over five decades ago. But no one remembers the first twelve minutes of the speech, which is emblematic of the romanticized way people remember history.

Dr. King’s speech came eight years after the murder of Emmett Till, a few short months before the assassination of Medgar Evers, a barely a year before the horrific triple murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Twenty-three years after King’s speech in Washington D.C., Cedric Sandiford, Timothy Grimes and Michael Griffith were attacked in New York’s Howard Beach, resulting in Griffith’s death. Last year, we all saw a video of a cop in Minneapolis murdering a black man, and were shocked by the killing of a black women, who was shot while she slept. Less than two weeks ago, white supremacists stormed The Capital in Washington D.C., after being encouraged by the president to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The horrific, racist reality of the country King was addressing in 1963, is the same reality of 2021.

The point I’m trying to make is that America is a racist country, and while many will admit to the racist horrors of the past, few truly grasp the extent of how bad things were, or how bad things still are. Instead, we choose to honor a man by remembering him primarily for a dream he had, rather than getting our hands dirty by examining the soul-crushing mechanism of racism, sexism and classism that still grinds people to dust.

Now, I’m not so naïve as to say that we can fix everything that is wrong with this country in terms of race, gender and class, but I am smart enough to know that before you can repair anything, you need to understand what it is you’re trying to fix and exactly how it is broken. Among other things, that means that people need to inform and educate themselves. More specifically, people need to know how fucked up they are, and how fucked up their ancestors were—this pertains to everyone, not just Americans, or white people.

Back in 2004, I wrote a review of Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. In the review I basically said that if a white person did not come away from the film feeling ashamed and outraged for how racist white America was and is, then there must be something wrong with them. An old friend of mine left a message after reading that review, telling me to go fuck myself, and that they weren’t racist, nor did they have anything to apologize for. About a year later, this same person actually sat down and watched Unforgivable Blackness, and then apologized to me, saying they had no idea how bad this country really was. And that’s the problem with this country and many of the people who live in it—they have no idea of how bad things once were, and in some cases still are. But it goes beyond simple ignorance, be it willful of otherwise. The real problem is that there are people who refuse to acknowledge the horrors of racism because they don’t think they themselves are racist. They seem to think that if they aren’t racist, somehow racism isn’t their problem.

Honestly, I don’t think Martin Luther King Jr., wherever his soul may be, cares that there is a holiday named after him, or that federal employees and school children get the day off. If he is capable of seeing what the world is today—even with the incredible strides made in Civil Rights—I think he is probably very sad and disgusted at what we have done to his dream.

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