Dream deferred: King’s hopes for our country go unfulfilled
Martin Luther King Jr. and I share the same birthday — Jan. 15.
Each year, I try to attend an event or lecture to celebrate his legacy and my birth. In 2018, before Marianne Williamson launched her bid as a presidential candidate, I visited Unity of Houston to hear the New York Times best-selling author, spiritual guru and Houston native on her “Love America” tour.
She asked the handful of Black people in attendance to stand, then led the majority white audience in an apology for slavery, racism and all that comes with it. It was powerful.
Williamson and I have spoken a few times since then, and she offered comforting words when I received an onslaught of racist and threatening emails for my article. We talked again this week. So much has happened in our nation during these two years.
“Sometimes in history, as in an individual’s life, you take two steps forward and one step back,” Williamson said. “Sometimes you even take one step forward and two steps back. History does not move in a straight line. I have lived enough of this period in history to know the levels on which things are better.”
But some of the changes for the better did not pave the way for the “social and cultural transformation we had all hoped for,” she said. Even remedies, such as the abolition of slavery, voting rights, desegregation and affirmative action, cannot eradicate racism.
“Once again, we’re confronted with Dr. King’s message that in order to establish the beloved community, we need qualitative shifts in our souls, as well as quantitative shifts in our circumstances,” said Williamson, who talks about King’s philosophies with his daughter, Bernice, on “The Marianne Williamson Podcast.” “If all we do is treat symptoms, until you root out the cause, which is always spiritual, moral and attitudinal, it’s always a malfeasance in the heart that proceeds the malfeasance in the world.”
Until the violent attack at the Capitol this month, I held hope that the nation’s racial divide would heal in my lifetime. Even with the police killing of George Floyd, and the nearly 8,000 Black Lives Matter demonstrations nationwide that followed. Well, it doesn’t look so good.
Some of the protests following Floyd’s death included vandalism, arson and looting, but more than 90 percent of those demonstrations were peaceful, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. BLM activists repeatedly disavowed the rioters. And in every city, BLM marches were met with intense police presence, if not military force.
As we commemorate MLK Day, I, like many others, have to dig deep to find a sliver of hope that King’s promised land of racial harmony and peace will become reality.
“I can see the hopelessness in our young people,” said Cherry Steinwender, executive director of the Center for Healing Racism in Houston. “They are watching the same news I’m watching, but I truly believe we are not doomed. It will take a lot of education. Dr. King said freedom is never voluntary. We are still in a space where we have to demand freedom and equality.”
Passing on hate
Early in my career, well-meaning people told me that racism inevitably would be eliminated as racists grew old and died off. That thinking failed to take into consideration the fact that racists teach their children racism. So the hate is passed onto the next generation — and the next.
Childhood lessons taught at the dinner table are hard to undo and often unconsciously seep into adulthood. They form the lens in which the world is viewed, so that people who are different are considered less than or, worse, the enemy.
Then there’s that privilege thing that is so ingrained that the privileged can’t even see it.
“How ridiculous is it that we haven’t learned from history?” said Celeste Hernandez, 23, a Houston native who recently relocated to Colorado to work as a pharmacy technician distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. “Rather than growing from our racist past, we are running from it in such an alarming way. We’ve made racial injustice a partisan issue. It’s a human issue. There is a lot of hopelessness. I don’t see any healing.”
The reverend’s daughter, Bernice King, who is CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta , said people outraged by the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol should not feed the rhetoric of the extremists with more hate.
“We have to bring them up to a higher place,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press. “So the way in which we speak to them, in truth, has to be in the right way. You know, we can’t attack their personhood, but we can attack their actions.”
I’m part of Generation X, the latchkey children who grew up determined to make our way and be seen. Racism was a reality, but we believed hard work would triumph over such adversity. Then came millennials, who were initially hailed as the ones who would bridge the racial divide, make gender fluid and not see color.
But here we are. No generation bears the full blame, but we all have a responsibility to do better.
Where do we go from here? Steinwender suggests we all take time to reflect. Take a nap, even.
“We are all drained from the pandemic, from George Floyd’s murder, from the politics, from everything,” she said. “We need to pause and recover our energy so we can focus on getting back into the ring to deal with the injustices and keep going.”
In his final book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” (Beacon Press, 1967), King, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, poured out his thoughts on race relations. He had rented a secluded house in Jamaica to write the book.
King’s words are prophetic, said Dr. Jonathan Chism, assistant professor of history and civil rights scholar at University of Houston-Downtown.
“In this book, Dr. King recognized the flaws in America and warned that we were on a path to chaos,” Chism said. “Now, it’s starting to hit home that we have not ‘overcome.’ The struggle King fought for continues. The inequities have been normalized, and we have to pick up the mantle and deal with institutional racism. What we’ve witnessed with the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many more is a testament to the work that needs to be done.”
The MLK holiday — and King’s vision of a peaceful world — is often misunderstood.
“Many people celebrate the MLK holiday by whitewashing it,” Chism said. “King’s dream has never materialized. We continue to deal with the issues that he fought for. King called on Americans to stand up. We have a responsibility to not support oppressive systems. It is our moral duty. My hope is that we can be reminded of King’s principles to live and work together.”
I know that doing nothing — sitting back and not speaking up — makes everything worse. Williamson agrees; being passive isn’t the solution.
“The last thing we can afford is a ‘let’s wait and see’ attitude. We cannot afford to sit back,” she said. “This will be up to you and me. … One of the most chilling comments made by Hitler toward the end of the war: The only way they could have stopped us was if they had come out early, swift and hard. We already missed the early and the swift part — we have to come at it now and hard.”