By Rev. Dr. James Forbes and Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson
As we approach this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, over half a century since the immortal “I Have a Dream” speech, we ask: Are we any closer to the dream that King spoke of or is it now even further from our reach?
As far as the eye can see, we are witnesses to an age of alienation, disaffection, polarization, demonization, terrorism, fascism, and wholesale demoralization. For countless thousands of our fellow citizens, the dream has become a nightmare.
Lest these words make us glaze over, let us remember that these evils affect human beings, each beloved of God, whatever their circumstance of birth. These are people who have been killed — body and soul — by gun violence and police brutality. Police, in turn, have become targets of assassination. Immigrants, whose desperation often drove them here, find their dreams crushed by the escalating deportations of fathers, mothers and children and the hate-filled rhetoric of a GOP gone rogue. Muslim and Sikh citizens, born here, are now the scapegoats of a society stoked on fear of the “other.”
Meanwhile, large numbers of us are soothed into slumber by the security blankets of tribalism, of homogeneity and identity politics, of self-satisfied righteousness and surety of our own way — and armed to the hilt with guns designed to kill spectacularly. Our factions relegate the other to “nobody-ness.” As Dr. King once commented, Sunday morning at 11 am remains the most segregated time in America.
And yet, possible or not, we find that King’s dream still compels us and motivates our days. King gave voice to the essential American democratic ideals that may still draw us together as one people, articulated in the Constitution of our nation for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — for all.
What is all the more remarkable is that he did this in a completely different era-before the demographic changes that are making the US a majority society of persons of color, before the opportunities and challenges of a growing religious pluralism, before the graying of the Baby Boomers and the ascendancy of a Millennial generation, before the financial meltdowns and greed that have made the rich richer and the poor poorer. These current trends make his dream all the more remarkable, and his mission all the more urgent.
The Civil Rights movements of the 60s and the legislation it spawned have taken us only so far. We are now bumping up against its limits. What is before us today, in some ways, may be even harder to overcome because it involves the change of hearts and minds and culture. The soul of our nation is at stake.
So, how do we adequately give tribute to Dr. King this year? Here is one way. One simple, oh-so-obvious way that we seem to have forgotten it. During King Holiday season, the days we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., take a step forward, cross the barrier of race, religion or class, and talk to one person who does not look or live like you. Even if it makes you uncomfortable. Then make plans to break bread together — in your church, synagogue, mosque, gurdwara or other house of worship. Keep it simple. Keep it human. Be open to changing a heart. A mind. And be open to being changed, yourself.
King believed that with God’s help, we could do this freedom thing. Let’s not merely commemorate his dream this holiday. Let’s prove him right. Let’s embody the dream in living color. Let’s show where our hearts are headed even if we have not gotten there yet.
The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr. is president of the Drum Major Institute and former Senior Minister of the historic Riverside Church. The Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson is president of Auburn Seminary. These friends and colleagues, of different race and gender, have worked in the same neighborhood, south of Harlem in New York City, for three decades; tied together in that “web of mutuality and single garment of destiny” that Dr. King spoke of.