Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial is one of the most well-known and celebrated monologues of all time, and for good reason. It is vivid in its imagery, stirring in its tone, and clear in its aspirations—but it’s probably other things that we don’t remember.
Most white progressives and moderates (and perhaps less self-aware conservatives) would say they love the speech.
But, do we really love it or do we just think we love it?
Do we love the idea of the equality it alludes to more than what it will take to manifest and maintain that equality?
Do we want the beautiful dream without paying the unpleasant cost in our waking lives?
Do we simply hope for everyone to reach the mountaintop without being willing to descend to make sure everyone makes it up the face?
When professed white allies of racial justice read through or listen attentively to Dr. King’s speech, we realize that it isn’t as comforting as we might want it to be for those of us of profound privilege. There is cost and messiness and there are expectations of change and sacrifice and discomfort:
Dr. Kings says:
We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
He goes on:
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
Dr. King assures us that incarnating the dream of the glorious mountaintop isn’t going to be easy or pretty. He is forecasting turbulence and guaranteeing struggle. He is laying out the cost and the necessary frictions. This is not some tame, gentle request for respect and dignity (as we often sanitize it into), it is a forceful demand for it, and he warns against dangerous contentment of those of us believing we are anti-racists.
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, when will you be satisfied? We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.
We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: for whites only.
We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Dr. King’s dream is one that will not simply come but it will need to be engineered, co-created, and defended through repeated action and continual sacrifice.
I imagine that many of us would declare ourselves champions of racial justice, believers in the inherent value of disparate human beings, insistent on the value of a black life—but we have to reckon with the reality that 60 years after this mountaintop dream speech, that systemic inequities still abound here, that diversity is still elusive, that people of color remain underrepresented and underserved. White Americans aspiring to be opponents of racism need to wrestle with the possibility that some of this is because we have not done enough to push back against injustice or we have rested in apparent progress or that we have sidestepped our responsibilities.
We also can’t forget that before months before the mountaintop dream there was the jail cell.
From Birmingham, where he was imprisoned as a participant in nonviolent demonstrations against segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter as response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. In this portion, he discusses the less obvious instruments of systemic racism and prosperous white supremacy.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
White friends, we each need to examine our consciences and inventory our actions and make note of our silences and our inactions and realize where we have been dream-resisters, people hesitant to help everyone make it to the mountaintop because of the inconvenience of the collateral damage of those efforts.
In the presence of the kind of cancerous hatred that killed Dr. King, the same kind that killed George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the kind that is having a renaissance here in America—there aren’t moderate grey spaces to sit comfortably and observe from a distance.
We either actively oppose the inhumanity or we abide it.
We specifically condemn the violence or we are complicit in it.
We loudly declare ourselves fierce and vocal adversaries of bigotry—or we become its silent allies.
Read Dr. King’s mountaintop dream speech again, and don’t be distracted by its beauty and resist the urge to be disarmed by its poetry.
Understand how costly freedom for all people is, for those of us who already enjoy so much it as our default experience.
Ask yourself what the mountaintop is actually worth to you, what you are truly willing to spend of yourselves on behalf of the dream.
I hope we love the dream enough to demand it.
Previously Published on johnpavlovitz.com and is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: Unsplash