What is it that America still fails to hear?
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., espoused that America literally existed as two Americas. In his depiction of the two Americas, Dr. King spoke of one America where the land overflowed with the “milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity.” King implored Blacks to imagine experiencing the unencumbered pursuit of happiness.
That idyllic America, however, was not the Americain King’s words, where Blacks dwelled. He made this statement just four short years after he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and eloquently spoke of a dream where the rough places of Black life would be made straight, and where character, rather than color, prevailed. King died; hewas assassinated longing for a more just America, asking what is it that America failed to hear?
The ‘other’ America, the one that Blacks inhabited, King said, was one that persistently struggled for “genuine equality.” King knew that despite some progress, racism was alive and could live for years in the deep crevices of a person’s heart.
If you closed your eyes and listened to his words from 1967, you would believe that he was perfectly describing the current condition of our nation. A prophetic voice, King would tell us, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
Those words spoken 45 years ago, would find Black Americans today reminding a deaf America that Black lives did indeed matter.
King warned of the dangers of one race believing, that they alone, were responsible for all the progress, while other minorities were “totally depraved, innately impure, and inferior.” He knew that such beliefs would almost certainly end in civil unrest.
He had seen the destruction and the pain caused by this erroneous thinking. King saw it ignite a movement when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a White man on a public bus. King would lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott and would hear the Supreme Court say that segregation of public buses was unconstitutional.
Buoyed by the campaign’s success, King would become one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization that would serve as the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. Under his leadership, the country would see the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Against the backdrop of those successes, King implored those in the fight for equality to face the reality that many still harbored the belief that Black people were inferior and did not belong in the land of their birth. These beliefs were held not only by those who spewed vitriolic words our way, but also from those who publicly supported the idea of equality, but struggled with the realization that inhabitants of the other America could become their neighbors, drink from the same fountains, and take a seat anywhere they pleased.
Racism, King said, left unchecked, would ultimately result in its logical goal of genocide. The nation bore witness to the inhumane and insane treatment of Blacks during the 1963 Birmingham campaign, as police chief Bull Connor used high-pressured water jets and dogs as weapons of attack against unarmed Black men, women, and children.
Why would America continually reject basic equality and humanitarian treatment for all? Despite these acts, King never veered from his belief that violence was not the answer we sought. Inspired by non-violent activism, he believed that if conditions of life for Black Americans persisted in “daily ugliness,” then riots and protests would persist.
King would not live to see the continued struggles that Black people still face today, despite being more educated and having greater financial resources than those who marched with him. Because of America’s penchant for taking positive steps forward, while simultaneously taking equal if not more steps backwards, it probably would not surprise him,but leave him disheartened, that a young Black man could go for a jog and end up hunted like an animal, fighting for his life simplybecause of the color of his skin, or that a Black man could lay dying on a public street because a White police officer took an oath to protect him, yet, deemed his life worthless. So, he placed a knee on his neck, snuffing out his Black life.
Dr. King would expect that after these injustices, thousands would take to the streets to cry out. King would be the first to tell us that only social justice and progress are the “absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
As America celebrates Dr. King, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Time Magazine’s first Black Man of the Year, beloved pastor, husband, father, brother, and son, we must remember his hope that America would do and be better.
He refused to give into despair. “The time is always right to do right,” he said. If only America believed that there were “no separate paths to fulfillment.” Dr. King challenged us to rise to the “majestic heights of being obedient to the unenforceable,” – the changing of the hearts of its people.
Is that what America failed to hear, then and now? It was Dr. King who said, “The law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me. We cannot legislate the heart, but we can restrain the heartless.”