What President Obama represents for Dr. King's legacy
For nearly half of my life, Black History Month was Black History Week. In 1976, after Carter G. Woodson's initiative had been celebrated during the second week in February for 50 years, it became a month-long observance.
Although it's not official, not even announced, the Black History Month has quietly become Black History Season. It starts the day after Christmas, with Kwanzaa and runs through the end of February.
Dr. Martin Luther King's national holiday serves as the midway point for this season of recognizing Black History. So, it's befitting that Barack Obama would be sworn in as POTUS this year the day after MLK Day.
To mark that historical occurrence in these historical times, I was the keynote speaker at the King Day celebration a week ago today in Chicago Heights, thanks to an invitation from Mayor Anthony DeLuca and City Clerk Ethel Taylor invited to speak to their theme, "A Dream Achieved," which tied in Dr. King's dream to the Obama reality.
I don't believe we're quite there on the achievement piece, so here's the text to the speech I gave to to audience at Chicago Miracle Temple Church in Chicago Heights, Illinois:
The Dream Achieved
It was just a few months ago, when one of those opinion poll crews was canvassing Western Pennsylvania—you know, that area between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that may as well be Alabama? Anyway, one of the pollsters knocked on the front door of one of those western Pennsylvania homes. A woman came to the door. The pollster asked her if she was voting for John McCain or Barack Obama. The woman turned around and yelled, “Honey, who are we gonna vote for?” A male voice yelled out from the back of the house, “We’re votin for the nigger. The woman calmly turned and repeated to the pollster, “we’re voting for the nigger.” When I first told my wife, Joyce, this story, she thought that I was joking. I wasn’t. It happened. It was reported in newspapers. It was posted on the Internet. And, in a backhanded true-life sort of way, it lets us know that what Dr. King was addressing two score and six years ago is actually a dream half done.
The Pennsylvania couple may not have gotten past the color of Obama’s skin but they were able to see the content of his character. Speaking of seeing, I see puzzled looks on some of your faces. Wasn’t this supposed to be a speech about The Dream Achieved? Where’s this man going with this? Stay with me, okay? The original title of Dr. King’s 1963 speech was “Normalcy—Never Again.” That wasn’t exactly a title that would flow off anybody’s tongue or stir anyone’s soul. So, it didn’t take long or much imagination for Dr. King’s wonderful words to become the “I have a Dream” speech. Nor did it take long for his speech to get white washed by the mainstream media. In his speech, which was delivered at the March on Washington for jobs and freedom, Dr. King talked a little about his dream but a lot more about the American nightmare. He spoke less about what he hoped our nation would do and much more about what our nation had not done. That’s the part of the speech that gets little play on TV or radio. So, I’m going to read a key part of what Dr. King had to say. Before I say what Dr. King said, let me caution you: I’m going to say it without the wonderful flow or rhythm you’re used to hearing in Dr. King’s speech. I want you to hear the words stripped of the passion and flavor. "In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men - yes, black men as well as white men - would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" When Obama takes his oath of office tomorrow I want you to think of it as earnest money…not that we’ve been paid in full. There are still some matters that need to be cleared from the books. Right now, there are one million black men unemployed. That’s what Dr. King was talking about. Right now, half our children drop out city high schools before they graduate. That’s what Dr. King was talking about. Right now, there are a million black men locked up behind bars. That’s what Dr. King was talking about. And here’s something he said in his Dream speech that could have been a sound bite from him after Oscar Grant was murdered by an Oakland transit cop two weeks ago: “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” I’m hoping that President Obama will be hearing Dr. King. Since he launched his presidential campaign, Barack Obama has been talking Lincoln but I suspect, that he was thinking King.
Yesterday, when Obama spoke in Washington, he stood in front of the Lincoln Monument but it was at the very spot Dr. King spoke 46 years ago. When I was on the Obama press bus last winter covering his campaign in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, I heard him quote from the Dream speech. At every campaign stop, Sen. Obama would explain to his overflow crowds that he was running for office because of what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now.” Well, come tomorrow, the time will be now, for President Obama to cash and carry some of that urgency. When he swears in tomorrow, the time will be now for President Obama to also pay some old dues to those African American giants that shed blood, sweat and tears to make his presidential dream come true.
You know the names all too well. Frederick Douglass. W.E.B. DuBois. Booker T. Washington. Thurgood Marshall. Malcolm X. Rev. Jesse Jackson. Harold Washington. Colin Powell. And then there are the strong black women whose contributions were critical. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Rosa Parks. Fannie Lou Hammer. Shirley Chisholm. Barbara Jordan. And even, let me see if I can get this out my mouth, Condoleezza Rice. If these men and women hadn’t done what they did, Barack Obama wouldn’t have been able to do what he has done—or what he will have to start doing beginning tomorrow. Thanks to his predecessor, Obama has a lot of doing—and undoing--to do.
After all the galas and parties are over and the celebrating has ended, we will still have some difficult days ahead. George W. Bush has left us in one big mess.
There are two wars waging. There’s the deep recession. There are tens of thousands of Americans losing their homes. There are nearly 50 million of us without health insurance. And nobody knows where the money is coming from or going to. And there’s a lot more that we can’t expect a President Obama to take on. Some of it is on us. Before the Dream can really be achieved, we’ve got to take care of our own business. Right now, only 25 percent of black children have a father in the house. That wasn’t Dr. King’s dream. Right now, our youth are killing our youth in record numbers. That wasn’t Dr. King’s dream. Right now, our senior citizens are afraid to leave their homes at night; afraid they’ll be mugged or murdered. That was not Dr. King’s dream. So, right now, I say that when President Obama is sworn in, that we flip the script.
In our public schools, rather than having the thugs in the in crowd and the brainiacs isolated and ignored, let’s make it hip to be smart.
Let’s see if our daughters can just say no to knuckleheads who want to see how many babies they can father but not bother to raise.
Let’s see if we can’t take Dr. King’s wise words and President Obama’s string of accomplishments and make them the new dream for the new generation and the generations to come. Let me remind you of the prophetic words in Dr. King’s Memphis speech, he spoke these words the night before he was murdered. “I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain top. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land.” Obama, obviously, is there. A lot of us are there with him. But there’s still some dreaming to do and work that must be done. None of us can afford to forget about those we’ve left behind. We owe it to Dr. King’s vision. Thanks and God bless.
While we're at it, here's the full length version of Dr. King's 1963 speech in Washington.