The needs of a beloved had me racing to the emergency room a few years ago. It was late Monday evening, near the end of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth-honoring holiday.
Then, often enough, comes the tedious waiting, including finding things to occupy your time when the hours drag on.
My eyes fell on one of those large monitors that crowd the walls of every room. When not in use by medical personnel, it reverted to a series of in-house hospital notices.
The one that really engaged my attention was a message urging staff to nominate candidates for the hospital’s “Spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Award.”
The deadline was a week earlier, suggesting that the communications team was still on holiday.
Immediately after the King award promotion was headlined, “Renew your holiday glow,” promoting $45 deals on microdermabrasion and “Botox treatments – $8 per unit.”
The juxtaposition of the two ads made me think of cosmetic treatment of social disfigurement; of the fresh evidence in recent months of our body politics’ racial sepsis; of mainstream appropriation of King’s “dream” for public relations purposes; and this T.E. Lawrence poem:
“All people dream: but not equally.
Those who dream by night
in the dusty recesses of their minds
wake in the day to find that it was vanity.
But the dreamers of the day
are dangerous people,
for they may act their dream with open eyes
to make it possible.”
Even 30 years ago, friends in the African American activist community privately debated committing acts of civil disobedience during the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday parade because of the encroachment of corporate sponsorship and the prevalence of military bands.
Former U.S. Director of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson (like King, a Morehouse College alum) said incredulously in 2011 that King would have supported our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Johnson must have forgotten that despite massive political costs – exacted even from fellow civil rights leaders – King publicly denounced the war in Vietnam, was vilified by former allies in the media, was the target of illegal surveillance by multiple federal agencies and was named by an FBI memo as “the most dangerous Negro leader in the country.”
Dreams must be sorted, and dreamers assessed. Some are more like trophies, bolted onto pedestals from where they can be admired without risk.
Some dreamers can be copyrighted, thus protecting the public from risky exposure to freedom’s more incendiary demands.
Some dreams generate more yawns than Sleepytime herbal tea. Some fade more quickly than new blue jeans in a bleach-laced wash cycle. Escalated sentiment is easily disposed. Iconic mascots can be kept on a leash.
The first official call for a national holiday in King’s honor was sounded in January 1979 by then President Jimmy Carter in a speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, marking the 50th anniversary of King’s birth. “[King] spoke of the America that had never been,” Carter said, “of the America we hope will be.”
Fourteen years later, President Ronald Reagan, under the pressures of an upcoming re-election campaign, signed the King holiday bill into law. But in doing so, he could only muster a toothless piety, “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
No economic policies challenged; no legislative agenda reordered; no human rights violations – domestic and foreign – brought to light; no voting rights expanded or tax policies examined; no foreign interventions recalled.
Of course, now there are no longer any “whites only” water fountains or waiting rooms or bus seats.
The Klan’s political protection by local authorities has mostly ended. Bank loan officers and real estate agents have to be far cleverer to maintain racially targeted practices.
Yet the wealth gap between white and black families remains large, with black families possessing around a tenth of the wealth held by white families.
Economic disparity generally, regardless of racial lines, is at or near an all-time record.
An international agency reported in 2017 that, if current trends hold, the richest 1% of the world’s population will soon own half the world’s wealth.
“Dead men make such convenient heroes,” Carl Wendell Himes Jr. wrote. “They cannot rise to challenge the images we would fashion from their lives.”
The “dream on” phrase that titles this commentary has a double meaning. In colloquial English, dream on translates as an indictment: “You can’t be serious!”
It refers to groundless fantasy, half-witted sentiment, the nutritional equivalent of a cone of cotton candy with a Coca-Cola chaser.
“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in “The Brothers Karamazov,” whereas “active love is labor and fortitude.”
“You can crush the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring,” said Alexander Dubcek, leader of the Prague Spring uprising of 1968.
The sort of dreaming that King envisioned is available when backs are against the wall, when hope for a different reality – anciently promised to soul, society and soil – is on the prowl, and resurrection threatens every established rule, every woeful rank, every tear-soaked regime.
Time for post-holiday resolve, powered by the beatific vision of the Beloved Community, drawing us forward, dreaming still, despite the threat of more bloody Sundays. But take courage and be of good cheer (see John 16:33).
Curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action, and author of, most recently, In the Land of the Willing: Litanies, Prayers, Poems, and Benedictions. He was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.