By Eugene Robinson
He would be an elder statesman now, a lion in winter, an American hero perhaps impatient with the fuss being made over his birthday. At 83, he’d likely still have his wits and his voice. Surely, if he were able, he would continue to preach, and to pray—and to dream.
For the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., dreaming was not optional. It was a requirement of citizenship to envision a fairer, more prosperous nation no longer shackled by racism and poverty. It was a duty to imagine a world no longer ravaged by senseless wars. His most famous speech was less an invitation to share his epic dream than a commandment.
In these sour, pessimistic times, it is important to remember the great lesson of King’s remarkable life: Impossible dreams can come true.
This is not a partisan message; King was every bit as tough on Democrats as Republicans. His activism even transcended ideology. His call for social justice and his opposition to the Vietnam War were rightly seen as liberal, but his insistence on the primacy of faith and family was deeply conservative. His birthday is a national holiday because his words and deeds ennoble us all.
Thinking about King’s legacy reminds me that this is hardly the first time our society has been bitterly divided and fearful of an uncertain future. When he led the 1963 March on Washington and gave his indelible “I Have a Dream” speech, many Southern whites, including officials, were still determined to resist racial integration by any means necessary. Many black Americans were fed up, no longer willing to wait patiently for the rights promised them under the Constitution.
We were inured to television images that today would be shocking. Police dogs turned loose on peaceful protesters. Columns of smoke rising from cities across the land following King’s assassination.
As he predicted, King did not live to reach the mountaintop. But his leadership—and that of so many others in the civil rights movement—set us on a path that changed the nation in ways that once seemed unimaginable. Racism, sexism and all the other poisonous -isms have not been eradicated, but they have been dramatically reduced and marginalized. It is difficult for young people to believe that overt discrimination—“You can’t have that job because you’re black” or “I’m going to pay you less because you’re a woman”—used to be seen as normal.
Today, the nation is suffering what I see as a crisis of confidence. Economic globalization and advances in productivity have hollowed out the U.S. manufacturing sector, eliminating millions of blue-collar jobs. For the first time, parents have to worry whether their children’s standard of living will decline rather than improve. Demographic change is about to make this a nation without a white majority; by the middle of the century, we’ll be an increasingly diverse collection of racial and ethnic minorities—held together, even more than in the past, by the ideals of the nation’s founding documents.
We’re struggling to climb out of the worst recession in decades. We’re deeply in debt. Most of us agree on the need for a social safety net but not on how to structure it or how to pay for it. Our political system is sclerotic if not dysfunctional. The last few elections have not produced a consensus on the way forward. The next won’t, either.
I consider myself fortunate that when I’m feeling pessimistic about all of this, I’m able to visit the new King Memorial that was dedicated in October. The towering statue of King looks out toward the Jefferson Memorial, honoring the man whose stirring words now apply to all Americans, not just a few. Behind King is the Lincoln Memorial, a tribute to a leader who shepherded the nation through days much darker than these.
The plaza surrounding King’s statue opens up to the Tidal Basin as if to demonstrate how our nation, at its best, embraces possibility.
The first time I visited the memorial, I ran into former Sen. George Allen from Virginia. He and I disagree on almost everything—and since he’s running for office again, I’m sure we’ll be on opposite sides of many issues. But on a crystalline morning, we were able to stand together, awed by King’s moral vision and humbled by his challenge: We can be better. We must. We will.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group
AP / Jacquelyn Martin