There are many things that could be said of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. We could discuss his famous “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., arguably one of our nation’s most influential speeches, for days on end. We could discuss the effects of his encouragement of nonviolent policies to achieve equality. More broadly, we could discuss his impact on the evolution of our society’s understanding of race and racism today.
How do we define race and racism in our society? A quick Google search of “race ethnicity definition” turns up over 18.6 million results. A search of how we identify with a race (or races) turns up about 25.2 million results, further complicating the issue.
We claim to have learned from Dr. King. We say we have truly tried to embrace his vision of a colorblind society. We have done our best to make his vision our reality. His vision is the very foundation of our society. He is essentially an honorary forefather.
Today, nearly 45 years since his death, we are all left to contemplate America’s progress toward his vision.
While progress has undoubtedly been made from Dr. King’s time where schools were segregated and businesses were “white only,” can we honestly say that we have fully achieved his dream when the federal government is still investigating cases of systemic housing discrimination (see the 2004 case United States of America v. Borough of Bound Brook, New Jersey, and the Bayview-Hunter’s Point community of San Francisco); when black youth are convicted, jailed and executed for crimes where their guilt and evidence against them is questionable at best (see Troy Davis); when, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 96 identified and active hate groups on the west coast, 15 in Oregon alone?
Although the evidence against our society is daunting, there is yet hope of achieving Dr. King’s vision.
On Friday, my 5-year-old twin niece and nephew came home from school and asked me if I have ever heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. Not wanting to drown out their excitement, I replied that I did not know who he was. To which they quickly replied, “He’s an American!”
They explained their kindergarten version of his “I have a dream speech” and how all people should be treated the same. They never said the word “color,” “black,” “white,” or “race,” because they did not know the meaning, the significance, the consequence, the weight those words once held. Those were just words to them, they weren’t a judgment or a condemnation.
To me, that shows while our society has our hiccups and is sometimes misguided, we still have the ability to achieve Dr. King’s dream.
As long as we can learn from our history; to live what we know is right; to love unconditionally, then Dr. King’s dream will transform from dream to reality, slowly but surely.
“We must turn a minus into a plus. A stumbling block into a stepping-stone — we must go on anyhow.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.