And so Dream season rolls round again.
That’s Dream, of course, as in “I Have A …” The nation recently celebrated Martin Luther King Day, which means schoolchildren dutifully recited the great 1963 oration, television news dutifully replayed the grainy black-and-white footage – and many people dutifully missed the point.
At least, that’s how it often seems to me.
In some ways, King is a victim of his own success. The controversial ideals he championed and for which he was killed – voting rights for all, access for all, liberty and justice for all – have become accepted to a degree he would have found difficult to believe. The march he led, the one that troubled the president and riled the conservatives, has become revered as one of the signature moments of the American experience. And as a result, that speech he gave, that tough-minded recitation of American wrongs, that preacherly prophecy of American redemption, has become a Hallmark card, elevator Muzak, bland cliche.
I have a dream, the schoolchildren say. I have a dream, the newscast says. I have a dream, the people say. I have a dream. A dream. A dream.
They wax eloquent about the dreamer and the dream and, listening, you find yourself wondering if they realize that it was much more than a dream. That it was not, in other words, some airy-fairy castle in the sky to be reached by dint of hoping and wishing, but a noble place to which the nation might lift itself if people were willing to sacrifice and work. Nor did King counsel endless patience in expectation of that goal.
“We have also come to this hallowed spot,” he said, standing at Lincoln’s doorstep, “to remind America of the fierce urgency of “now.”‘
Over and over, he said it: “Now is the time. NOW is the time.”
None of which is to demean “I Have A Dream.” To my mind, King’s speech trails only Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg on the list of the greatest public utterances in American history. But it seems to me that this most revered of speeches is also one of the least understood.
You see, King spoke to an audience that had been working for civil rights – not just dreaming. They were an audience of marchers and sit-in organizers, of boycotters and committers of civil disobedience. “I am not unmindful,” he said, “that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells.” Because these were people who had laid their bodies, their freedom, their time, their treasure, their very lives, on the line for a cause they believed in.
I think of them when I am asked by young people, as I often am, “What can I do?” about the war in Iraq or the encroachment of civil rights, or the genocide in Darfur, or the continuing intransigence of racism. They hate these things, they say, but feel helpless to respond. “What can I do?”
It always amazes me that people who command technology their forebears could not have imagined can feel so powerless after those forebears, armed with little more than telephones and mimeograph machines, went out and changed the world.
“What can I do?”
I tell them to start by realizing that they “can” do. When did we become so narcotized, so benumbed and bereft, as to forget that? As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
That is one of the most enduring lessons of Martin Luther King’s life and career. One hopes that lesson is not lost on all the people quoting his most famous speech.
It is a fine and noble thing to have a dream. But having a dream is no excuse for accepting an onerous status quo and waiting passively on “someday” to make things right. A dream is not an excuse. It’s a responsibility.
And now is still the time.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: [email protected]