Monday, January 17, 2011

What Happened to MLK Jr.'s Dream?

At the apex of his life as a civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was traveling about 325,000 miles a year and gave as many as 450 speeches one year. However, the speech etched in the minds of millions, perhaps billions worldwide is the “I Have a Dream” speech.

What is it about this particular speech that makes it resonate with a variety of audiences?

Some are undoubtedly mesmerized by the colorful language and the poetic phrases. Others are struck by this speech because it expresses hope for a brighter tomorrow where everyone is judged on their merits and not their skin color, and by extension not their gender, age, religious belief or nonbelief, national origin or sexual orientation.

Still others are enamored with this speech because it occurred at such a time in history when people of all backgrounds, rich and poor, young and old, came together on a hot sweltering day in August to persuade the nation to live out the true meaning of its creed that all men (and women) are created equal. And then some are inspired by this speech because King was able to put into words the inequality a race and class of people were feeling and experiencing on a daily basis.

In 2008, there was a period of euphoria and optimism among Americans who felt they had lived to see irrefutable evidence of the fulfillment of King’s dream when we elected our first biracial president.

As it was in the days of President Kennedy, young people registered and voted in numbers not seen in 50 years. Civic engagement was at an all-time high. The outlook for race relations was promising, and the entire world applauded our willingness to look beyond color and see character and competence.

Two years later, the euphoria has worn off. Those who hoped for a fast turnaround of a faltering economy soon despaired as factories continued closing, the dollar continued declining, the unemployment rate continued rising and the federal deficit continued expanding. These conditions warrant dissatisfaction and dissent.

We are indeed within our First Amendment rights to protest for principles. We also have a duty to engage and express our discontent with government. What is troubling is the coded sentiments that threaten to undo much of the progress we’ve made to become a united federation of states and the poisonous rhetoric that attacks the person rather than their perspective.

We are devolving into a fractionalized nation of xenophobes, fearful and distrusting of anyone unlike us. Some flinch when they encounter an Indian Sikh wearing a turban, fearful that he might be an Islamic extremist. Some women clutch their purses when riding alone with an unknown man of color in the elevator, leery of being accosted, no matter how well he might be groomed and dressed.

Some are appalled at the notion of a military without a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on sexual orientation regardless of the soldier’s professionalism.

King said that “racism is the myth of inferior people.” His ally, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, added: “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man — the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”

If King’s commitment to equality and justice is worthy of emulation then each of us must resolve to do our part to affect the change we wish to see. Determine today to shine the light of reason into the dark recesses of intolerance until justice is illuminated.

In the corporate sphere this means choosing to advocate for people with potential, regardless how different from you they might look, act, think or worship. In health care it means regarding any malady as worthy of political and financial support even if the disease in question is most prevalent among blacks (sickle cell), Latinos (cystic fibrosis) or Jews (Tay-Sachs).

Two years ago, the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Development Institute spawned the “Blueprint for Prosperity,” a comprehensive community-based strategic planning model whose impact is measured through 15 years.

The Blueprint focuses on six critical areas with far-reaching impact: education, racial opportunity and harmony, economic development, quality of life, leadership and infrastructure.

With the assistance of many partners, United Way, Penn State Harrisburg, The Firm Foundation, PinnacleHealth, Messiah College, Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC and others, including media sponsors WITF, 95.3 FM the Touch and The Patriot-News, we are framing the issues and mobilizing resources for a concerted and united attack on these systemic challenges.

Join us and others in putting aside partisan distractions and see that our fortunes are “inextricably bound together.” Do it today for “Today is the tomorrow you spoke about yesterday.”

JOSEPH ROBINSON JR. is executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Development Institute and executive director of the South Central Pa. Sickle Cell Council.

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