Everyone, even the smallest child, knows that Martin Luther King had a dream. But the problem is, while we know this man had a dream, we don't know what that dream was.
Ask somebody -- anybody -- to talk about King's dream. They will give you a blank stare, or mutter a few words about getting rid of bigotry, judging people based on merit rather than skin color or being tolerant and eliminating discrimination. The story ends there.
King's dream went beyond changing attitudes and enacting laws. King's dream was about removing obstacles that keep people from becoming their very best. His dream was about changing the realities of blacks, Latinos and poor people by turning the neighborhoods in which they reside into great places to live, work and raise a family.
King believed that having healthy diets, good places to live, great schools, quality health service, genuine opportunities and being able to live a meaningful life in neighborhoods free of crime and violence were inalienable human rights and requisites for success -- entitlements owed to every American. Government and the private sector have the responsibility to work with citizens to create the strategies for realizing these entitlements in practice.
King believed that people were not "free" if they had inadequate education, incomes too low to meet basic needs, bodies ravaged by disease, feelings of hopelessness, deferred dreams and if they lived in stressful, dilapidated and run-down neighborhoods, filled with drugs, broken families, crime and violence. Such people are not free, King said, even if they have the right to vote, share schools, lunch counters, libraries, hotels and other public facilities.
King understood that building this type of egalitarian society required a commitment to socioeconomic justice, the development of innovative and insightful programs and the investment of significant resources in social and human development.
In contrast to the battles that lay ahead, the civil rights struggle had been effortless, King said. "Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls" and the eradication of ghettos is more complex than integrating buses and lunch counters. Thus, King argued, the fight for these "smaller" freedoms (civil rights) had been easy and now the real, truly difficult work of realizing the "larger freedoms," loomed ahead.
To acquire the political will and commitment to invest in "authentic" change, King believed that America needed to refashion its attitude toward blacks, Latinos, colored people and low-income groups, as well as repurpose its institutions and fundamentally change the cultural values undergirding racism, sexism and classism.
Upon reflection, in 1963, when King said, "Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring," he was talking about both the smaller and the larger freedoms.
Henry Louis Taylor Jr. is director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo.