The comparison is irresistible.
After all, the fierce urgency of then is the fierce urgency of now. America is still in a struggle to reconcile its rhetoric with its reality, and nearly 40 years after the death of one extraordinarily inspirational African-American leader, America was given another.
Barack Obama took the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., exactly one year before he would be inaugurated as the nation’s 44th president. On such a historic occasion, it was easy to see a 21st-century reflection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — especially since Obama took the opportunity to address America’s conscience as King once did.
Despite the many similarities, Obama does not represent the realization of King’s dream. He may very well be a character in that dream’s fulfillment, but the change that King envisioned has not yet come to America.
Most Americans have no conception of the breadth of King’s dream. Many can recount his hope that his children would one day “be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Many have no idea that King’s dream was far more inclusive than a 15-minute speech would permit.
In his final sermon — just four days before his assassination — King elaborated on his vision for America. “Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory,” he said. “Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people.”
At the time of King’s death, he was in Memphis, Tenn., to help laid-off garbage workers. As his legacy evolved over time, King began to use his pulpit to speak for the disadvantaged. He had begun a “Poor People’s Campaign” through which he wanted to dramatically improve the living conditions for America’s poor.
King’s quest to improve the lives of the poor had special ramifications for his quest to improve life for African-Americans. Toward the end of his own life, he realized that he had witnessed significant victories against Jim Crow in the Brown v. Board decision, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He realized that in spite of these legal successes, most African-Americans had seen little changes in their livelihoods.
King realized that America had to enforce these new standards, but he also realized that African-Americans would be oppressed as long as their society denied them economic justice. King understood that these new laws would even the playing field so that African-Americans could compete, but he knew they could never be competitive unless America made adequate amends for its centuries of oppression.
“There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of slum conditions, if he to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say that the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps … It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
King’s dream could never be realized without court decisions and laws that removed some of the institutional barriers to racial equality. It would never be realized, though, without radical, practical steps to change the lives of millions of African-Americans. King spoke of this in an essay published posthumously.
“The problems we now face — providing jobs, better housing and better education for the poor … will require money for their solution, a fact that makes those solutions all the more difficult,” he wrote. “Solutions for these problems, as urgent as they are, must be constructive and rational.”
In that respect, not much has changed over 40 years. Lack of jobs, poor housing and inadequate education still plague America’s urban centers, and African-Americans suffer disproportionately as a result.
Obama does have some plans to address those issues, though. He is considering a large-scale infrastructure improvement program that would put millions of Americans back to work. He also wants to create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund; he also wants to help improve America’s schools.
On Nov. 4, 2008, millions of Americans took to the streets. They cried tears of joy as they celebrated the nation’s first African-American president. While some folks returned to comfortable houses in the suburbs, many disadvantaged African-Americans returned, teary-eyed, to apartments infested with roaches and rats and with hunger in their stomachs.
Perhaps they also returned with hope in their hearts.
King’s dream has not yet been realized, but Obama’s election has restored America’s faith in itself. If America can come so far in just 40 years, then it can surely realize the dream of which King once spoke and for which so many still hope.
Michael Jones is a sophomore in Saybrook College and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Ward 1 alderman.