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A Dream Deferred: Biblical Futurism and Political Philosophy in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last SCLC Presidential Address “Where Do We Go From Here?”

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Editor’s Note: This paper was originally presented at the 2018 Social Consciousness Summit on April 6, 2018. It is reprinted here with permission.

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was senselessly and yet strategically assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Fifty years later I cannot help but realize that this political icon has been dead longer than he was alive. Fifty years later I can’t help but notice how his spirit lives on in every freedom fight; his fingerprint stamped on every non-violent demonstration. Many have declared their desire to celebrate his life, but how can I celebrate the day another unarmed black man was unapologetically murdered? How can I celebrate the murder of a prophet? How can I celebrate the murder of black Christian social consciousness personified? I cannot. I will not. Today, I will mourn because his legacy has been co-opted by white liberals. Today, I will mourn because his dream is still deferred. Today, I will mourn because his death has yet to redeem us.

Preparing for my presentation at Andrews University’s MLK50 Social Consciousness Summit I typed these words into a white box asking me “what’s on your mind?” The theme of the University’s event was “Are We Living the Dream?” and as it percolated through the repository of my thoughts without even skipping a beat my mind rebutted the question with another question: whose dream? This is the question that opened the discourse in my presentation.

A DREAM DEFERRED

American political narratives beginning in the 19th and going through the 20th century have taught us that Americans by nature are dreamers. So the question is not “are we living the dream,” but instead, “whose dream are we living?” Are we living the Puritan dream for religious freedom? Are we living Jefferson’s dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Are we living the slave’s dream for emancipation? Are we living the Klansman’s dream of a humanity untainted by the spot of African blood? Or by chance are we living King’s dream of a nation where African Americans are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character? Are we living out King’s dream of a beloved community? Was this even King’s dream? Where did King receive this dream? Was he lying in bed in a hotel room in Montgomery, Alabama? Was he praying in a closet in Atlanta, Georgia? Where was King when he first had this dream?

It’s recorded that in 1962 many activists, civil rights leaders, and preachers gathered at the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Terrell County Georgia to remember and reflect on when the Ku Klux Klan burned it down. James Bevel, a strategist for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), states that a young woman named Prathia Hall delivered a prayer and “as she prayed, she spontaneously uttered and rhythmically repeated an inspiring phrase that captured her vision for the future – I have a dream.” Dr. King was in the congregation as Prathia Hall delivered her prayerful poetic soliloquy. Struck by the power of her oration and the potency of her utterance, King quickly adopted the line within his subsequent sermons and speeches.

Most notably, Dr. King went on to deliver his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in Washington D.C. to thousands on August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His pastoral poetics rang out from the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and for many of us continues to ring in our ears years later. Generations who have only heard recordings of his voice can’t picture his image and not hear the drawl of his southern accent, the song in his vocal inflections, the rhythm in his pauses. It’s almost as if the oral delivery of the speech alone caused the dream to imprint itself in the hearts and minds of all Americans regardless of race.

This speech, that phrase, was so potent that over fifty years later we can ask the question, “are we living the dream?” and everyone knows which dream, and whose dream we are speaking of. All because in that moment, on a hot summer day in our nation’s capital, the world was hypnotized by the aural aesthetic of black preaching and given the dream of a prophetic black woman through a prophetic black man. Unacknowledged and unknown, Prathia Hall gave language to an entire civil rights movement. This black woman gave voice to the struggle and vision to the strategy, but her gender caused her to be seen as unfit, unworthy, and insufficient. Her femaleness regarded her as ineligible to be the national spokesperson for Bible-based hope in racial justice. So that once again, another woman is lost, hidden behind the burden of a vision too grand to bear the weight of citation.

Towards the end of 1967 “the dream” faded into obscurity with the original dreamer as King realized that the machine of institutional racism and systemic white supremacy had established an American way of life that perpetually defers equity and equality for African Americans. James Cone in his book Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare uses the following quote as an epithet for his chapter on ’67-’68 King entitled, “Shattered Dreams”:

In 1963…in Washington, D.C.,…I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess…that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare…just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful…Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroe’s problem of poverty. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched my black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. I saw the dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating…Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes (Cone 213).

Alluding to the American terrorist attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church, redlining in the city of Chicago, the Watts riots, and the war in Vietnam, King cites these major instances of racial, economic, and militaristic exploitation as the catalyst that turned his dream into a nightmare. He suggests that these moments of intentional, structural, and systemic violence against black bodies caused him to resonate with the great American poet Langston Hughes and admit that he is “the victim of deferred dreams.”

The poem that King is referring to is entitled, “Harlem,” and was published in 1951 in a book-length suite entitled Montage of a Dream Deferred. In “Harlem” Hughes asks a series of questions that go on to resonate with many African Americans throughout the civil rights movement:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore, and then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load,

Or does it explode?

In these questions, Hughes paints a vivid picture of the potential demise of dreams. Something that was otherwise understood as intangible, Hughes gives materiality. An element of the human condition that is restricted to the mind, Hughes suggests can be experienced at every sensory level of humanity. He asserts that you can see when a dream is deferred, when the life within it dries up right before your eyes;  you can feel when a dream is deferred, when the life of the dream becomes infected; you can smell when a dream is deferred, when the death of the dream begins to wreak; you can taste when a dream is deferred, when the sweet aspirations of the dream sugar over into unattainability; you can feel when a dream is deferred, when the inactivity and inaccessibility and immateriality of the dream weighs on your conscience like a burden; you know when a dream is deferred. A dream is not just restricted to one kind of death. And so Hughes ends his poem asking, “or does it explode?” querying as to whether or not a dream simply bursts into oblivion with all of its pieces and parts scattered making the dream as a whole unidentifiable.

This was how Hughes felt about the demise of Harlem, New York, the metropolis and hub of African American art and culture. And this was how King felt about the dream of racial harmony. Like the 16th Street Baptist Church, King’s hope of racial harmony was bombed by white supremacy. Cases of police of brutality in Northern cities bombed King’s hope in racial harmony. Economic disenfranchisement and the intentional economic marginalization of African Americans in Northern cities bombed King’s hope in racial harmony. So when King was murdered on April 4, 1968 it’s important that we realize that the dream of ’63 died before him.

As we commemorate and reflect on how 50 years have passed since the moment Dr. King fell victim to government sanctioned murder, I am pulled to remember the man he died as, not the man we are often most comfortable remembering: a ’63 King that we have pieced together and created. Even our understanding of ’63 King is flawed. We do not drink the full cup of his prophetic truth on economic justice; we do not embrace the thistles of his harsh moral criticisms of the American government. Instead, white liberals have taken one aspect of one speech, they have taken a piece of the dream and made King into their own image and that is the King they worship, the King we all worship. They have watered down his message of love so that it no longer contains any rebuke, only tolerance. His non-violent demonstrations have become so romanticized they have lost the actual blood, sweat, and tears that factually accompanied their moments.

Today, I do not believe it is for us to live the dream. The dream died long before the dreamer. I believe Dr. King would want us to know how to keep fighting when dreams of justice are deferred; how to keep walking when dreams of justice are denied; how to keep believing when dreams of justice seem humanly impossible; King wants us to know how to work in a nightmare.

“WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?”

Delivered at the 11th annual convention for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on August 16, 1967, Dr. King gave his last and most radical address as president of the organization. Titled with the question, “Where Do We Go From Here?” King guides a group of Christian activists out of the despair of a dream deferred and into the hope of a new world.

Dr. King begins his speech asserting where the plight of African Americans was in 1967. He reminds the audience that the Constitution of our great nation purported that we were sixty percent human, but then suggests that American society engages with the African American as though he or she is actually only fifty percent of a human. He says,

Of the good things in life, the Negro has approximately one half those of whites. Of the bad things of life, he has twice those of whites. Thus half of all Negroes live in substandard housing. And Negroes have half the income of whites. When we view the negative experiences of life, the Negro has a double share. There are twice as many unemployed. The rate of infant mortality among Negroes is double that of whites and there are twice as many Negroes dying in Vietnam as whites in proportion to their size in the population (King 245).

In these first few sentences of the speech, Dr. King spotlights the systematic dehumanization of African Americans. By illuminating how different the lived experience is for African Americans from birth through life, and even into death, King reveals that the fight for equity is always first and foremost a fight for the humanity, dignity, and value of African American people. This is a critical point to foreground his argument upon as it shows that King is not simply championing civil rights, but he is also prioritizing human rights. He’s asserting in fact that there can be no civil rights if there is not first an understanding and an acknowledgment of who is human and therefore deserving of civil liberties.

King captivates the attention of his audience by not simply suggesting that whites must be convinced of the African American’s humanity, but that African Americans themselves are in need of such education and conditioning. He suggests, in fact, that it is harder to get blacks to see their humanity than it is to get whites to see it. How can that be you might ask? King suggests that the lived experience of African Americans is so far below the basic standard of human living that he asserts that these conditions make convincing African Americans that they have value, dignity, and are a part of the human family a difficult task. In his own words King says, “the job of arousing manhood within a people that have been taught for so many centuries that they are nobody is not easy” (245). In other words, the most difficult and yet the most important work to be done in the midst of the nightmare is to convince African Americans that in spite of what society says about your skin, in spite of how society treats your women, in spite of how society kills your men, in spite of how society strategically impedes your access to financial stability let alone the acquisition of wealth, that you have value. King suggests that when blacks begin to believe this they will have true freedom; a kind of freedom that is not dependent upon legislation or the assistance of states and governments, but is instead rooted in a deep knowing of one’s self and one’s worth. King says, “No Lincolnian emancipation proclamation or Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring this kind of freedom. The Negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation” (246).

This declaration is one of the most dangerous things an activist can champion. King is plainly advocating the importance of black people asserting their humanity in a society that is actively seeking to dehumanize them at all costs. This is a radical position and request because it is a petition that all blacks be in a constant state of resistance. For King, opposition to black dehumanization is not just in non-violent marches and legislation, but it is in the every day demanding of dignity and respect. King continues,

And, with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world, “I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history. How painful and exploited that history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my foreparents and I am not ashamed of that. I’m ashamed of the people who were so sinful to make me a slave.” Yes, we must stand up and say, “I’m black and I’m beautiful,” and this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him (246).

King is not advocating a meek, lowly, and humble exchange here. To “boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation” one has to very intentionally and forcefully buck any and all claims or treatment that seek to chain you down and impede your ability to operate in the totality of your personhood. It is for this reason that King then begins to champion black self-improvement and self-actualization. Gone are the days where King believed that the black man’s uplift rested in the assimilation and integration of the black man into white society. Now, King is admonishing Christian activists to empower African Americans to change and determine their own destiny. He’s advocating they take control of their own uplift.

Now to be clear, this is still through non-violent agitation. King also denounces riots in this speech and asserts the timeless phrase “through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that” (247). So King is not advocating violence of any kind. I do believe that what he is championing is the crucifixion of a savior complex. Oftentimes, justice on behalf of African Americans, and really black and brown people globally, is approached through a broken rescue mentality that is steeped in the savior complex of colonialism. Individuals with power and resources descend into the broken condition of a given demographic of people and seek to lift them up. This is good work, but it is not great or sustainable work because it is not biblical. Christ descended into our condition, but when He left He left us with the Holy Spirit who empowers us to maintain and even exceed the freed condition that Christ provided for us. In the same way, we as activists must work with blacks in such a way that yes we descend into their condition to liberate them of their oppression, but we also give them what is necessary for them to not simply maintain their freedom, but to ultimately exceed that freedom and truly come into the hope and power of self-actualization. This is what King was championing; a kind of activism that does not simply give the bootless African American boots, but the kind that gives him boots and directions to the shoe store! Now, this is a gross oversimplification of the kind of restorative justice that needs to be enacted in predominately African American communities. But it paints the desired picture. Our first work in the midst of the nightmare is not to simply emancipate, but to empower.

Fifty-one years since King orated this speech, African American men are currently being disproportionately incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. African American children are placed in the juvenile system for texting and talking back in class. In 2015 the city of Baltimore reported that out of 476 infant deaths 272 of those infant deaths were born to black women. State resources for schools are still based on a kind of redlining system where schools receive funding and supplies based on zip codes, and students are forced to attend schools based on their zip code. Not to mention the fact that according to Mapping Police Violence, 1,146 people were shot and killed by police officers in 2017 nationwide. Black people were 25% of those killed in spite of only making up 13% of the population. The dream is still deferred! We are currently living in a nightmare. This is why you have a movement of young activists crying out “Black Lives Matter.” It is black activists answering the call to King’s declaration for the re-humanization of black people.

King is suggesting that in spite of these condition, in spite of high unemployment, in spite of high interest rates on cars and mortgages, in spite of every single obstacle that works to deter African Americans from gaining and sustaining wealth, the most important work that we can do is to counter this narrative of black inferiority and champion black self-development. This is what he believes will produce a new world order. It is not enough that poor and working class blacks be given resources and funding. They must also be taught how to gain, sustain, and increase those resources and funds for themselves.

King ends his speech calling his audience’s attention to a familiar story. Pointing to the third chapter of John’s Gospel, King calls his audience to remember a Jewish leader by the name of Nicodemus. A man who went to Jesus by night to discuss the life of one committed to following God, Nicodemus learns that night that in order to enter into the kingdom of Heaven he must be born again. Dr. King concludes his speech by making a paramount parallel between America and Nicodemus: he says, America, you must be born again!” In essence, King employs biblical futurism, or an imagination of America’s political future rooted in the biblical narrative, particularly the New Testament, to assert his radical political philosophy that America must experience a moral and spiritual rebirth in order for true racial and economic equity to exist on its shores.

To call America to be born again is a bold request. And it is also a potentially hopeless one. To rest the redemption of our nation and the improvement of the African American’s social condition in the notion of a biblically-based national repentance is radical, and I’m not even sure if it’s realistic. King is suggesting that our entire national structure has to be holistically changed in order for the racial, economic, and militaristic exploitation of our country to be done away with. And that such work begins with spiritually undoing American cultural life as we know it. But this is the hope! The hope is that because it’s a spiritual problem I have the opportunity to fight it with spiritual weapons. I have the opportunity to pray and protest; shout and stage die-ins; love and letter write; preach and march. Because it’s a God problem that means I can put it in God’s hands. But hear me, to put it in God’s hands does not mean that we back away. Acts is a book dedicated to chronicling how God desires to partner with humanity to manifest the will of God on Earth. And so to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to accept the call and responsibility of partnering with God to manifest His restorative justice on the Earth. This requires that we have what King calls “divine dissatisfaction.” In order to work in the nightmare, in order to create a new world, in order to inspire a spiritually rebellious America to be born again we must have rooted deep within our hearts a “divine dissatisfaction.” We must allow the Spirit of God to place within our hearts a discomfort, unrest, and burden for every manifestation of injustice. It must be divine or delivered by God because if it is not divine then the dissatisfaction will not be sustainable. This is what many of us currently have, just plain old dissatisfaction. So we are dissatisfied when the headline drops, but we are appeased when the headline goes away. We are dissatisfied when someone is killed, but we are appeased the moment we forget his or her name. Many of us have not been able to sustain our dissatisfaction and it is impending on our ability to work for justice because we have not allowed the Spirit to give us His divine dissatisfaction. King desires that the Spirit gives us a divine dissatisfaction that allows us to:

be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education…Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied (251).

Because our dream may have deferred into the nightmare of our reality, but our very humanity, the very power that our bodies are image bearers of the one true God serves as the hope and healing for our sin-infected society. Let us be born again so that we might receive divine dissatisfaction.

 

Notes & References:

Cone, James H. “Shattered Dreams (1965-1968).” Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. New York: Orbis Books, 2012. p. 213-243. Print.

King, Martin Luther Jr. “Where Do We Go From Here?” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Ed. James M. Washington. New York: HarperOne, 1986. p. 245-252. Print.

 

Claudia M. Allen is a third-year PhD Student in the Department of English at the University of Maryland, College Park specializing in 19th and 20th century African American Literature. Her research focuses on Race and Theology within African American Literature. She is an avid speaker and a frequent guest on Hope Channel's Cross Connection.

Image Credit: Andrews University, designed by Kandace Agyemang-Baah.

 

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