As you all know by now, it has been 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech in which he told the nation that he dreams of equality, and calls for an end to racism in the United States. As powerful as that speech is, both when he delivered it then and when I read it now, racism has not come to an end. There seems to be a lot of talk about the fact that racism persists, and oppression still persists. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, as powerful as it is, is often taken in the wrong context. The dream was meant to inspire change, but it never delivered a timetable for change. The dream does not preclude that we would arrive at some symbolic point, in the evolution, or dissolution, of racism, and that we could look back at a time and say that his dream was prophetic. If anything, his dream is like all other aspects, not just of the Black experience, but of the Christian experience, in which dreams and aspirations are a two-edged sword that require as much of the individuals that are being oppressed as is promised by their Lord and savior of what their lives will be like in the near future.
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that, in 1963, blacks were in a similar, familiar situation, and we felt as though we were all in this together. The cultural and economic gap between the middle class and poor Blacks was not as severe and pronounced as it is today. Once the clerical and administrative positions were opened up to African-Americans in Washington, D.C., and a new labor movement opened up opportunities to Blacks in cities like Cleveland, Akron, Detroit, Youngstown, Toledo, and Chicago. A Black Middle Class popped up out of nowhere, virtually overnight. Yet African-Americans were still oppressed in the South, mentally and physically, and relied on the Black Church, which then provided the backbone for the Civil Rights Movement that would eventually articulate itself through new organizations, and new efforts throughout the sixties and seventies, to bring us equality. We needed an idea, a concept, a dream, to hold onto, to get us through tough times. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech was the right speech, for that particular time in American history. That doesn’t mean that what we were fed 50 years ago is sufficient for today, particularly when we have tools at our disposal now that we did not have in the struggle back then.
By the late ’70s, a lot of that energy behind the Civil Rights movement seemed to have been lost. We weren’t dealing with the systems of oppression that we were in the ’50 and ’60s; the racial epithets, and the segregation that oppressed us back then. To the casual observer, African-Americans had finally arrived. But to the informed, the visceral, visual, traditional aesthetic of minority oppression only evolved into the “woodwork” of American institutions; now replaced with what we like to call “institutional” oppression.
We do Martin Luther King Jr. a disservice when we look for the next “Black leader.” When a leader dreams of empowering individuals, he wants to provide the tools for everyone he speaks to, everyone he speaks for, to become leaders in their own right. We haven’t done this as African-Americans. Some of us have fought our way into positions that provide the appearance, and are experienced through the same aesthetic, as the same level of leadership that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. worked from, but at the end of the day, what do we expect from this leadership? People criticize them for raising money, but it takes money to fight this battle, particularly when the people you are speaking for do not have any. The real issue is that a lot of us want to continue to be led, because we have not been equipped to lead. Rather than look at Jessie Jackson, or Al Sharpton , or Cornell West, or anyone else ask yourself what you are doing to become a leader in your own household. Can you lead your own family? Does your family respect you?
If black men are not leaders in their own households, they have themselves to blame. Not black women, not their children, not the white man, not God himself. Leadership is not in what we say or what fear we instill, but it is in the tools we provide, how we empower other individuals and convince them that it was their own idea and how we build up those that are around us, rather than tear them down. It is not about money, and it is not about what other people are doing to you. Leaders do not always have money, and they’re not always rich, regardless of what anyone else tells you, or how it may seem.
The dream has nothing to do with getting money, and everything to do with what we do with the little bit of money that we do have. Too often money is a tool used to create effeminate men, instead of preparing young boys to be an even better man than they already are. Who is teaching young black boys to idolize men whose masculine characteristics are not a caricature and a parody of itself; real men who do real things, who aren’t obsessed with fashion, or how many women they can sleep with, or anything that looks cool and acts tough, but can deliver on a promise without speaking a lot of words? The same individual that would probably teach young black girls to respect and expect to be with such a man when he is old enough and mature enough to actually be considered a young man.
We make our mistakes, and we operate from positions that are not that strong, but we can start with what we tell other people and what we do to encourage each other. We are always tearing each other down, often in ways we do not even realize because we have become so conditioned and so accustomed to the way in which we speak and how we conduct business. Instead of talking about Martin Luther King Jr. be Martin Luther King Jr. Instead of talking about black public intellectuals be someone that is actually about the business of affecting change, rather than simply intellectualizing about it. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed before he could ever get around to that part of the conversation. But the rest of us who are alive can pick up the pieces and move forward.