Americans recently commemorated the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech. All these years later I can still remember that speech as if it was given yesterday. When Dr. King stated his hope for an America in which people will be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, I was hooked. Even as a thirteen year old boy, these words resonated with me, and with good reason.
I grew up in the pre-civil rights South, an experience that gave me an insider’s perspective on the debilitating effects of Jim Crow. In my youth separate but unequal facilities for blacks were the norm. Even families such as mine that were dirt poor ranked higher on the social spectrum than black families, regardless of their economic status or education level. I saw black men called “boy.” I watched as black mothers were forced to use the back entrance to the local grocery store in our small town. But what really made an impression on me was how my friend Jimmy and I were treated for wanting to do nothing more than play in the way young boys do.
I liked to spend Saturday mornings fishing in a pond hidden away in a cluster of woods several miles from my home. The pond was near what locals called the “black side of town.” It was while fishing that I met Jimmy. Jimmy and I soon discovered that we had much in common. His family was poor and so was mine. He was being raised by a single-mother who supported her family by working as a housemaid. I was being raised by a single-mother who supported our family by working as a waitress. After our fathers vanished from the scene, we hardly ever heard from them again and certainly received no support from them.
Jimmy liked to fish. He also liked to play baseball and football, climb trees, run foot races, and play in the woods. I liked these activities too. In fact, Jimmy and I were such kindred spirits that we soon became fast friends. That is when the problems began. Jimmy and I were alike in almost every regard, but we were different in one important way that quickly became a major roadblock in our relationship. I am white. Jimmy is black. This was 1959 in the old Jim Crow South. Without going into the unpleasant details, suffice it to say that Jimmy and I both paid a price for trying to be friends in an era that did not allow such friendships.
The adults in our lives were finally able to keep us apart, or in the language of the time “separate.” But what those adults did not know is that in taking away my friend they created a young crusader for Civil Rights. Even as a young boy it was inconceivable to me that a person’s skin color could make such a powerful difference in how he was treated, where he went to school, what water fountain he could drink out of, and who he could play with. Consequently, when four years later I heard Dr. King make his inspiring statement about judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of his skin, I knew intuitively that he was right and would eventually prevail.
What I did not know is that Dr. King’s legacy would be undermined by self-serving opportunists—black and white—whose only cause is to fatten their wallets and gain political power. It is the bitterest of ironies that a cause intended to free black people from the soul-sapping bondage of Jim Crow would be turned upside down and used to keep blacks in a new kind of bondage: government dependence that encourages feelings of victimhood and an entitlement mentality. I cannot even imagine what Dr. King would have thought about an administration that actually recruits people to the welfare rolls rather than helping them gain self-sufficiency. Nor can I imagine what Dr. King would have thought about the vilification of conservative black Americans who refuse to accept victimhood, entitlement, class envy, and racial divisiveness as the norm.
Black Americans still face many problems that hold them back in contemporary society. Unfortunately, too many of the so-called black leaders of today have no interest in helping their fellow blacks solve these problems. The problems black Americans face today are no longer those inflicted on them by Jim Crow. Rather, the most debilitating problems faced by black Americans today are self-inflicted: drugs, violence, fatherless families, high dropout rates, and an inordinate dependence on slick, self-serving politicians who care nothing about them or improving their circumstances. But perhaps the biggest problem faced by black Americans today is the certainty that if they take the initiative to live out the American dream in the way Dr. King advocated, they will become targets of vicious attacks by so-called leaders of their own race who build themselves up by holding blacks down.
Bringing an end to racial divisiveness would benefit our country immensely. The amount of intellectual, physical, and emotional capital expended on racial problems every day saps the United States of vital resources it could be putting to better use in improving the quality of life for Americans of all races. Unfortunately, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s I have a dream speech, we are no closer to judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin than we were in 1959 when Jim Crow interceded to keep my friend Jimmy and me separated because he is black. What’s worse is that we are no closer to achieving Dr. King’s dream because of the deceitful, self-interested, manipulative actions of misleaders who care no more about helping black people than did the ignorant, tobacco-spitting bigots of my childhood.