What I learned from Dr. King
The first time I ever read the entire “I Have a Dream Speech” I was in my senior year of college. I had read excerpts and seen clips my whole life, but I had never read it all until then. I did so because I had this professor (in this class that happened to help change my life) who gave us an assignment for our first holiday weekend back at school. Our first holiday in the Spring is always the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And the assignment was to consider the purpose of the holiday – because he felt it wasn’t one that we should just ignore the meaning of simply because we were off- and write about what we decided on in our journals that we kept as a part of the course. So since I really wanted to do well in this class, I decided to do the research I hadn’t in the past and uncover my feelings on the subject. This began with reading the “I Have a Dream Speech” in its entirety.
I grew up as a white female in the south. I’ve lived here (in this state) my whole life. But as a child of the 80’s, I never experienced life prior to the passing of the Civil Rights Act. I’ve never been in a class without a mixture of races in the classroom. I grew up watching The Cosby Show, Good Times, A Different World, 227, Amen, The Jefferson’s, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (I watched The Brady Bunch, Saved by the Bell, and Full House, too). And as a child (by this I mean pre-adolescence), I was naïve enough to believe that this was the norm. This was the way things had always been.
I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that even though there was always diversity in the classroom from my point of view, I was also never, ever the only person of my race in my classroom. I was never a minority. I never stood out. I spent the majority of my time blending in so well that people failed to notice I was even there. And I could do that because I didn’t stand out.
I understand how easy it can be to be revisionist in recalling our own personal experiences. As far as I knew growing up everyone got along for the most part. People all had friends. Some of the lines were sort of divisive, but growing up people tend to be clique-y anyhow. It’s easy to write off that most of the white students ate lunch with other white students, and most black students ate with other black students. We tend to gravitate towards those with whom we feel the most comfort. But looking a little deeper, even though everyone for the most part outwardly got along and everyone was able to coexist peacefully, my perspective, I found was not the only perspective.
As I read over the speech, it made more and more sense that my experience would have been entirely different had I been born a few decades earlier with a slightly darker skin tone. Today I think about what it would be like for me, the mother of a young boy to have to worry about what might happen if my son accidentally tries to play with one of the white children he sees as we are walking down the street. Or as he gets older, if someone will choose to arrest him in the middle of the street for looking at a woman of a different race. I don’t have to worry that his rights don’t exist, that he can be beaten, executed, hung, made a spectacle of for sport simply because of his race. I don’t have to worry that he is truly considered less than human, less than equal, less than anyone else who is around him simply because of any genetic factor. I don’t have to live in fear because my country treats us as less than human in its laws and in its actions, and thus encourages its citizens to do the same for fear they may become ostracized themselves. My personal experience has never known anything of this type of fear, but that is not the case for everyone, and it is essential that this notion is understood and remembered.
To quote from Dr. King’s speech, “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
We are all human, all equal in our humanity, and all deserving of our rights in this country as humans. To accomplish this we have to figure out a way to stop being divisive on our own. To look at one another and recognize that no matter who we are seeing, that person reflects the same human qualities that exist within us. We are all different, each unique, but we are also the same, and it is those similarities we must start accentuating. We are not perfect, and it is easy to judge and look for reasons that others are less than, reasons that make us feel like, even though we aren’t perfect we still have a chance, because we are better than this person or we aren’t doing what that person does. But comparison in that format is never beneficial; we only tear ourselves down when we seek to tear down others.
“They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
We will never experience true freedom as long as we are living in a way that serves to prevent others from experiencing freedom. As long as we are judging and condemning based on the superficial, we will never rise above as a whole. We have to look within, we have to confront those things that scare us within ourselves, we have to move past our own revisionist attitudes and search for truth. And from truth we will find a place where our own inherent worth is uncovered. And with each step we take we move closer and closer to seeing the dream of Dr. King realized – a dream where humankind learns the value of humankind, and has the courage to live out those values.
This is a copy of the whole speech, in case you haven’t read it: