A reader of another column I wrote on this subject asked an insightful question: “Is Dr. King’s dream becoming a nightmare?” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reached out to all Americans not just liberals and not just blacks, but you wouldn’t know that from watching the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of his moving I have a dream speech. In the first place, the celebration was a one-sided affair orchestrated by the left as if only Democrats have a right to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy. King, by the way, was a Republican. A few figurehead Republicans such as the Speaker of the House of Representatives were invited, but only a few. Listening to the speeches at the Lincoln Memorial one could easily surmise that America has made no progress since Dr. King’s violent death. An outsider listening to the speakers could have easily concluded that America is a racist nation in which blacks are still just one step away from slavery. None of the speakers thought to mention that in a nation whose population is only 12 percent black, we have a black president.
Listening to Representative John Lewis and others speak, one got the impression that civil rights leaders who were contemporaries of Dr. King still long for the bad old days of Jim Crow when they so obviously held the moral high ground on racial issues. Lewis and his contemporaries remind me of my old high school football teammates who still sit around on weekends watching old game films from the 1960s while they reminisce about the best days of their lives. In their minds Lewis, Jackson, and company are still stuck back in the old days of Jim Crow when marching, picketing, and sit-ins were the order of the day. It’s as if they fear that real progress in race relations will threaten who they are and what made them famous. It’s as if progress in race relations will make them somehow irrelevant.
As bad as things were in the darkest days of the battle for civil rights, it was still easier to fight the good fight back when the enemy was an identifiable bad guy: white segregationists like Bull Connor. The civil rights movement was able to overcome enormous obstacles and eventually win because people of good will—white, black, brown, and yellow—agreed that Jim Crow was wrong. The black leaders who followed Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violent dissent held the moral high ground and every person with an ounce of decency in his hearts knew it. But conditions have changed radically since those world-changing days in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. The most debilitating problems faced by black Americans today are no longer the work of bigots in white sheets. Rather they are the result of drugs, crime, violence, fatherless families, a crippling high school dropout rate, and crushing levels of unemployment.
These problems cannot be solved by marching, picketing, or sit-ins, nor are they caused by an easily identifiable bad guy in a white sheet. Rather, they are indigenous problems that require a different kind of leadership and different solutions than were required in the days of Jim Crow. Unfortunately, too many people who claim to be black leaders are still stuck in the 1960s. They are like old generals in the Pentagon who are always fighting the last war because they cannot understand or accept that circumstances have changed. If you want to know how well that approach works, think back to Viet Nam.
In view of the current disappointing state of race relations in our country, Americans would do well to ask: What happened to Dr. King’s dream? The answer to this question, unfortunately, is that his dream has been hi-jacked. Before getting into who did the hijacking and how, some background is in order. Martin Luther King, Jr. ultimately won the battles he fought for civil rights in America because he always took the moral high ground. His eloquent rhetoric was carefully fashioned to appeal to what is best in people. As a pastor, Dr. King believed that all men—black, white, yellow, and brown—are children of God and as such stand equally before God. He also knew that the overwhelming majority of Americans, in their heart of hearts, believed this too. This being the case, his demands for equality for black Americans represented a moral imperative, not a demand for special treatment.
Much has changed since Dr. King’s life was tragically cut short on the balcony of a Memphis motel. Unfortunately, in the wake of his death King’s dream was soon hijacked by racial hucksters who capitalized on the great man’s martyrdom to create a civil rights industry that has fed them and many others since King’s assassination. The civil rights industry has also served to encourage, promote, and ignite racial divisiveness. Those who now purport to carry on the work of Dr. King too often take the moral low road and encourage black Americans to do the same. Dr. King’s message of fairness, equality, and justice was clear and compelling. It meant that in a nation founded on the principles of freedom and liberty Americans of all races should be able to expect fairness, equality, and justice. It did not mean that black Americans would be set apart by the government as a special category of citizens eligible for government entitlements distributed on the basis of race.
Dr. King fought, bled, and eventually died trying to give black Americans equal opportunities to live out the American dream. I wonder what he would think about the vicious condemnation by liberals of successful, independent, conservative black people who are, in fact, living out the American dream. I wonder what he would think about today’s so-called black leaders who do nothing to solve the problems of drugs, crime, violence, fatherless families, truancy, unemployment, and escalating high school dropout rates that plague black communities. I wonder what he would think about black leaders who tell their constituents that anger, class envy, racial divisiveness, entitlement, and government dependency are not just the acceptable but the preferred way to improve their lives. Finally, I wonder what he would think about a black president who has failed to use the power and influence of his office to bring all Americans closer to the realization of the dream he so eloquently spoke of 50 years ago.