Has the dream become reality?

Posted: Jan 23, 2002 12:00 AM
I had planned to write this column about our treatment of Taliban detainees at Guantanamo (hint: they're living as well as many Cubans, only without the live pig in the living room), when I was drawn to a summit of umbrellas at Martin Luther King Park in the city where I live. I was drawn there despite the rain and the cold because I was thinking: White people ought to show up. Blacks often ask, legitimately, where are all the whites who care about civil rights? Why are there only black faces in the crowd when issues of equality are raised? While most Americans do care about those same issues, it's true that most of the whites at such events have been recently sworn into public office or are toting TV cameras. I confess that I showed up partly out of curiosity, but also because it seemed like the right thing to do. For the record, I do remember where I was when Martin Luther King was shot - in English class, studying Faulkner's "The Unvanquished" with Mr. Gasque, who sent David Kinder to the nurse's station for smelling salts. How could I forget? In 1968, I was old enough to know that race mattered, that Dr. King was doing something important, and that his death was a tragedy sufficiently immense to justify the holiday our nation just celebrated. Unfortunately, that holiday isn't worthy of King, or his legacy. Here's at least partly why. I'm standing in a circle of about 150 folks, all black except for about six whites, including me. We're all cold and wishing we had larger umbrellas. In the center of the circle, a handsome, well-dressed young black man stands on a dais, speaking into a bullhorn. He's talking fast because he knows everyone wants to get out of the rain. "Now I ask you," he says, "are we living the dream yet?" Faces light up. "Yes!" shouts the crowd. (start italics)Cut! Kill the lights. Stop filming. Cripes, who invited these people? No, no, no, that's not the right answer. (end italics) "I don't think so!" the young man shouts into the bullhorn and then hurries through four or five more pages of inflammatory rhetoric while the crowd looks embarrassed and a little bored. A fellow next to me shouts the requisite "Amens" and "You tell it!" But the overwhelming spirit of the moment is disappointment. The crowd, which had failed their speaker so miserably, must be wondering as I am: Is it necessary to yell so much? Do we always have to admit to abject misery even when we're pretty happy? Can't we just focus on our accomplishments and talk reasonably about our goals as a nation rather than as a racial subset? Maybe this is why only 150 blacks showed up and why whites almost never do. Many of us - blacks, whites, etc. - lived through the civil rights era and most have embraced King's legacy. Only the rarest racist wants to return to a time when any man, woman or child was treated less than fairly. But we're also acutely aware that while not all blacks are living a dream (The Dream was for citizenship, not perfection) any more than all whites are, we're not exactly living under a Taliban regime. Thanks in large part to King's fortitude, we're acting more or less in unison to make this country's promise available to everyone. The Jesse Jacksons, Al Sharptons, Louis Farrakhans and others - doubtless role models for the young man with the bullhorn - need to keep people ever mindful of their anguished American lives, even if it has to be fictionalized, or these self-anointed leaders are flatly out of a job. I think I can say with some certainty that my musings are not uniquely mine, but were shared by most of the other people standing in that circle. Most, I suspect, believe (but can't express outside their closest relationships) as Randall Kennedy, Harvard law professor, recently wrote: "Before Martin Luther King Jr. Day becomes just another excuse for time off, both King's legacy and his memory are in desperate need of rescuing from the banality that surrounds the holiday." Kennedy's concern was that the "formulaic celebration of his (King's) birthday" ignores the important lessons of the man's life and threatens to condemn his legacy to irrelevancy. Indeed, hauling out the same tired mantras and outdated rhetoric each January have the effect of making trite King's remarkable contributions to us all. We might lessen the trivialization by considering the truth, which is that, contrary to what the young man insisted, we (start italics) are (end italics) living the dream that King envisioned. Most blacks know it, even if they're not allowed to say it.