As America’s first African-American president enters his final year in office, it’s a strange thing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream seems as elusive as it ever was, and not just for African-Americans. It seems in some ways that we are riven into factions more than ever.
King – one of the great Americans of the 20th century, whose birthday the nation celebrates today – did not dream in his famous speech of a country that extended its ideals only to people of his race. That was at his center, of course, but his mountaintop view was broader than that. He spoke of “all God’s children,” and of the day when “black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” would celebrate the same freedoms.
True, he did not mention Muslims. Nor did he include Hindus or Buddhists or Taoists. Surely not because he doubted their human equality, but because members of those faiths played a lesser role in American life then. But he did wish that his children, and by extension, all of us, would be judged on character.
That speech was so powerful that King’s focus on character became the standard for assessing the application of equality. Yet it’s a standard that many Americans – including some who seek the presidency – now seem willing to trash as portions of the country cower in fear of killers who claim Islam as their religion.
The push by Donald Trump – and echoed or tolerated by others – to prevent all Muslims from entering this country is as embarrassing as it is unwarranted.
That is not simply an abandonment of King’s ringing call for equality and focused judgment, but a fundamental rejection of this country’s core values. Fear can do that, of course. It did in Germany in the 1930s. But Americans like to think of themselves as exceptional. If so – and if they still believe that character and not group identity is what matters – then more people are going to have to speak out against the scapegoating of millions because of the actions of a few.
The lesson here is that no lesson, no matter how hard-won, is forever learned. When threats appear and demagogues spout easy answers, people who know better need to call them on it. This is a great country, but that hasn’t made it immune to making terrible mistakes.
King might also today be shaking his head at how some law enforcement officers continue to abuse African-Americans, whose plight was closest to his heart. Most obviously egregious was April’s cold-blooded shooting of Walter Scott of North Charleston, S.C.
Scott had been stopped for having a broken taillight, but he ran from Officer Michael Slager, who, cool as could be, drew his firearm and shot Scott in the back. Cellphone video, shot by an unseen observer, showed the world exactly what happened, and it was only one of a series of events that showed police officers in cities around the country treating African-Americans with contempt.
So, it’s not just that lessons need to be relearned, but that some still need to be absorbed. More than 52 years after King’s signal speech and nearly 48 years after his death, his dream remains only a dream. And, in truth, given the realities of human nature, it will always be that. Equality will always be a journey more than a destination. It’s a direction, and one in which the country is demonstrably moving. That’s the good news.
But we see evidence daily that challenges remain. A good place to start in this election year is to reject the fearful, isolationist calls to keep Muslims out of the country and, instead, to recommit to the hard work of judging people by the content of their character and of insisting that the country remain true to its best ideals, given life by King, in the shadow of Lincoln, all those years ago.