For a variety of personal and political reasons I have continually chosen to take seriously the deep wisdom shared in 1968 by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of Martin Luther King’s most valued friends, teachers and co-workers. Just months before King’s assassination Heschel introduced his dear brother, comrade and leader to a gathering of rabbis with this unequivocal statement:
“The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.”
Those words come alive for me whenever I find us Americans trying—consciously or otherwise—to lighten the impact and re-make in our own image the tough meaning of this demanding pastor and prophet, avoiding or ignoring the powerful challenges King continues to present to us all.
Nowhere is this escapist process more evident than in our Sunday School-type approach to the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, beginning with our choosing to forget that it was delivered in a controversial setting identified as a “March for Jobs and Freedom.” Perhaps even more important is what we have determined to ignore (and refuse to teach) from the early, theme-setting portion of the speech. There, remembering the dozens of hard struggles for racial justice that were currently raging across the country, symbolized by the police attack dogs, the battering firehoses and the youth-led nonviolent determination of Birmingham, King spoke for the hundreds of thousands of mostly black marchers on the mall and their significant number of white allies gathered at the time, when he declared that “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” (For those of us who teach this speech, where might we go with our students if we asked them—and ourselves—what King could have meant by “the promises of democracy,” and what could we mean now?—especially as we look closely in 2010 at our re-segregated, underfunded and often directionless public schools, at our black and brown-filled private prisons, at our still deeply segregated residential communities, our never-ending wars, and their officially sanctioned pillage from the funds required to heal the starkly rising inequalities of our nation, to meet the desperate needs of our poorest children and our wounded mother earth.)
Refusing to lighten up in that early, now neglected part of the speech, encouraged by thousands of “Amens,” “Yes, Lords” and continuing rounds of applause from the sweltering, fully engaged crowd, King said, “Nineteen Sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content, will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.” Promising no easy, painless victories for democracy, King drove on to predict “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwind of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” At the same time, true to his own best spiritual and social convictions concerning the redemptive power of creative nonviolent struggle, King called on all who were committed to a new America to “rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
To forget or avoid (or fail to teach?) these words of King is to miss some of the deepest understanding of what Rabbi Heschel meant by “the impact and influence” of this man who loved us so fully and who therefore insisted that we face ourselves and determine to deepen the continuing, absolutely necessary struggle to open our best possibilities for us all, and for our children. Indeed, his references to our children are among the most misused and misunderstood elements of the speech. And as I reflect even further on this speech/sermon/love song-Jeremiad, and on the many unkind cuts it suffers—as well as the enlivening challenges it presents to us all, I remember that my friend, Martin, was only 34 years old when he delivered it on behalf of millions of others. And I recall (we were, with our wives and children, Atlanta-based neighbors and co-workers at the time) that in 1963 he and Coretta had only recently experienced the joy of the birth of their fourth child. Following those memories I knew how important children were to him, how much he regretted his constant absences from the lives of his own beautiful gang. So it is also clear to me that the two major references to children in the speech were not meant to be sentimental throw-away lines. Rather they deserve to be taken (and to be taught) seriously.
As King tried to share the heart of his dream with the gathering in Washington and the millions watching on television (and the countless numbers watching from wherever our ancestors reside) it was natural that he should turn to his children—and all of our children—to clarify his meaning. First, he said, “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
That, of course, has become one of the favorite statements that is cherry-picked from the speech by persons who often seek to avoid acknowledging and dealing with the continuing destructive power of racism in our nation and, therefore, may have missed “the impact and influence” and deep meaning of King’s statement. With that dangerous, light-weighting process in mind, I have lately asked myself and others, how do we really measure the content of a child’s character? How do we measure (I like that word better than “judge”) anyone’s character, including our own? Can we do it without intentionally opening ourselves to each other, without coming close to each other, without sharing one another’s stories, aspirations, hopes and fears? Indeed, can we really measure the content of our own individual character without regularly practicing deep levels of honest self-reflection? In other words, it seems clear to me that King’s dream was offering us no easy way forward, either with our children or ourselves. To explore fully the content of our characters surely requires our best thinking and working, to open that necessary pathway into each other’s lives. To place nurturing, loving hands on the lives of our children.
At the same time, I find that King’s second, dream-sharing statement about children is, interestingly enough, much less currently quoted, but its impact and influence are no less needed to be taken into our lives in 2010. For King, the state of Alabama was very much on his mind when he thought of the children. For not only was that the state in which he had begun his pastoral ministry, his Movement leadership and the co-parenting of their children, but he had come to the March on Washington with deep memories of that year’s hard struggles for democratic social change in Birmingham. At the same time he could not forget Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, who was constantly choosing to represent the deep and deadly commitment to white supremacy and “segregation forever” which was (and still is) present in so many parts of the nation. So it was a personally grounded and audacious act for King to place his dream and his children’s lives into that context, when he said “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its white governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification [does that mean the same as ‘We must take our country back’?], that one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!”
Now, nearly half a century later, it seems clear to me that the challenge to realize such a humane dream is worth our deepest thoughts, most imaginative social planning and creatively audacious community-organizing—as well as politically and financially costly local and national policy changes. How do our children, all our children, African-American, many kinds of white children, especially the poor, Latino, Native American, Asian-American, Middle-Eastern—each and all of our magnificently expanding, variously-hued bright band of youthful living hope—how do they all become claimed as “ours” by all of us? How do they all get close enough to each other, on a regular basis, to hold hands long enough to recognize that they are indeed sisters and brothers, children of the great creating Life Force, however we name him/her?
Surely our re-visioned, re-created schools, communities, religious institutions, and democratized civic leadership have some role here. Besides, by now we certainly know that such a children-centered dream as King’s cannot, must not be confined to Alabama, but needs to be brought alive in Oakland, in Denver, in Kalamazoo, in St. Louis, in New Orleans, in Chicago, in Phoenix, in Birmingham, in Philadelphia, in D.C., Baltimore, Providence and Anchorage.
In other words, the challenge exists wherever there are children (with their families and teachers?) living in damaging isolation from their sisters and brothers, from “the promises of democracy.” How do we help them find, identify and hold each other closely? Surely this hard question was a significant part of what King had in mind when he urged the vast multi-racial, multi-generational congregation on the Mall to “Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of the northern cities…” He urged them, black and white together, “to walk together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together…. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force, knowing that we will be free one day.
Perhaps King knew that our own as well as our children’s freedom, depended on all of us finding our lost sisters and brothers, discovering our real purpose in life. Perhaps he also knew that it was only in such struggles for our multi-racial, democratic family that we ultimately discover and develop the true content of our character on a personal and national level. Perhaps indeed, Rabbi Heschel was opening such truth, such struggle, such challenges to us all when he later declared that “The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.”
So as we teach our children (and ourselves) to prepare for active, costly, thoughtful participation as creative citizens of a multi-racial, democratic, national family, we are compelled to go with King to his deepest levels of hope and struggle, to delve into the transformative possibilities of his dream. As we engage with a world community seeking to rediscover its post-industrial purpose and direction on an endangered Mother Earth, we do well to remember King’s call for compassionate, life-giving “soul force” to replace our own long, crippling dependence on extractive force and death-dealing military power, from the “rockets red glare” to this seemingly unending time of “shock and awe.” Let us instead stand quietly in awe of life itself and of our great national and personal potentials for sharing, building, enhancing life. Perhaps we shall then discover not only the content of our character but the deepest meaning and purpose of our freedom, constantly singing with King and with all the other known and unknown continuing creators of our forever emerging nation, “Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.” And even as we sing, we remember in our ears and in our hearts the sound of the bombs exploding in the Birmingham Church, taking the lives of the young girls, just weeks after the great March. And we know as well that the martyrdom of Medgar Evers and of John F. Kennedy before the year was over were all part of the drama on the mall. And still we sing together. And still we work together. For that unyielding determination to bring a new nation to birth is surely the best measure of the content of our character, and the best sign of the impact and influence of Dr. King.
(Now, a final, loving word to my dear friends, the teachers everywhere: Please be sure to ask your students what freedom means in 2010—for children, for adults, for the American nation, for the world community. And perhaps you might let them hear your own answers, your own dreams. What a beautiful exchange! Perhaps we all may even discover the meaning and power of “soul force” in the 21st century. What a great promise! Fannie Lou, Ella, Martin and Dr. Thurman. Do you see us? We’re on our way. And we won’t turn back.)
(This essay was written in response to a request from Sojourners magazine. That progressive, religious journal is publishing a series of articles focused on the questionable ways in which many right-wing persons and organizations have used portions of the 1963 “I have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)