And still we dream

January 16, 2023 4:47 am

A white and red wreath marks the spot where Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Something about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech always reminds me of the last page of “The Great Gatsby.”

Like Gatsby, King had come a long way, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it.

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” he told an overflowing Memphis crowd, “but I’ve been to the mountaintop. I’ve seen the Promised Land.” 

Maybe it was too late even then. As a nation, we seem unable to come to a true reckoning with our racist roots. We fought a civil war to end slavery, but before we’d even ratified the 14th Amendment, the losing side was romanticizing the war, reframing it as the South’s noble fight for states’ rights, with slavery just the case in point. 

It worked. Thousands of communities, including Helena, blithely authorized memorials to the martyrs of “the Lost Cause.” Generations of American children learned the revisionist history of the War Between the States, downplaying the slavery issue.

In 1877, in a trade-off to confirm he’d been elected President, Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to remove federal troops from the South, where they’d been enforcing racial equality since the war. The South hardened into the new racism of Jim Crow, subjecting Southern Blacks to segregation, discrimination, intimidation and unconscionable brutality. 

 Decades passed. The century turned. More decades passed.

Ultimately, television made the brutality impossible to hide — or to stomach.  You cannot eat dinner watching children sent flying by the force of a firehose and keep chewing. One American in particular would not let us not see. With his deep faith, keen intellect, and gift of language, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave us a wake-up call.

Called a meddling outsider who ought to stay in Georgia, he responded, “(W)e are all citizens of the same country. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Called an extremist, he observed that Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson also qualified for that label. 

“The question is not whether we will be extremists,” King wrote, “but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

Told to be patient, he recited a litany of Black people’s daily woes, culminating with: “When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next … plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a huge step forward. But once again, we backslid. Nine months after King’s assassination, Richard Nixon became President. The 1968 election convinced him he needed to sideline two potent “enemies” — hippies and Blacks. His war on drugs did just that.

The prison pipeline became the new Jim Crow.  Between Nixon’s stiff penalties for minor drug infractions, Reagan-era mandatory minimum sentencing, President George Bush’s Willie Horton fear-mongering, and Clinton’s “three strikes” fiasco, by 2000 the land of the free had become the home of the incarcerated.  

Today Americans represent only 4.4% of the world’s population, but we account for a stunning 21% of the world’s prisoners. Black Americans represent only one-eighth of our population, but one-third of America’s prisoners are Black. They’re arrested more often, charged more harshly, given higher bails, offered worse plea deals, and given longer sentences.

Even unincarcerated, Blacks live “at tiptoe stance.” On virtually every measure of resilience – wealth, health, educational attainment – they fare far worse than other Americans.  That America suffers from a systemic racism rendering our most sacred creed a lie is simply undeniable. Yet we always find a way not to look. Scholarship on the subject is banned in our schools. Words like “equity” and “diversity,” connoting  our fundamental ideals, are stricken from  our aspirational goals on the pretext they’re code for something else.

And so in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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