Since Monday is Martin Luther King Day, let’s spend a few moments remembering what made Martin Luther King distinctive from other civil rights leaders during his lifetime, and what makes him different from many civil rights leaders today.
Perhaps you've seen the TV commercials, on-line messages or newspaper ads appealing to us to remember Martin Luther King's legacy. Almost all of them remind us of the common thread woven between past and present: "The Dream." "A day to dream. A lifetime to act."
What exactly is "the dream"? To some people it is a day to emphasize racial awareness, to celebrate the differences. But King envisioned an America that downplayed the importance of race and instead elevated a common humanity linking people of all races and backgrounds. This put him at odds with black nationalist Malcolm X, who derided King's famous "I have a dream" speech at the March on Washington as the "Farce on Washington." The Rev. Dr. King had no use for the "Black Power" movement or the racial politics of radicals such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown: "There are some who are color-consumed, and they see a kind of mystique in being colored. We do not follow that course in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference," King said. Can you imagine Al Sharpton or Kamala Harris saying that today?
So what's "the dream?" If you want to find it, politicians are the last people to ask.
That's the mistake the media always make. Politicians and media-savvy activists simply tack their own agendas to what they call "the dream." But the political part of King's agenda passed long ago into law. Scores of civil rights laws were passed, and government spending on the poor in terms of education, housing, welfare and job assistance has soared. Some of these programs were successful, some were disappointments and some, such as welfare, intensified the very problems they were designed to cure.
"The dream" is about far more than politics or government. It's ultimately about how we see each other. It is about people recognizing the equal dignity of each other and caring about their well-being. The root of this belief did not come from government; it is located, as King well knew, in the church. We are equal in the eyes of each other and our government because we are equal in the eyes of God.
The real unfinished work of "the dream" rests with how we treat each other in our everyday lives. That's "the dream," and that's why it's important to remember it and commemorate it. That should be on our minds this Martin Luther King Day – and every other day as well.
- John Carlson