I wrote this piece back in 2008, for a UK based publication called UK Blackout Magazine. As you can tell by the first line, it was written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time when this article was written, the idea that the United States would have its first ever black president, or that that president would give way to the chaotic, racist, misogynist that is the current president-elect, would have seemed so fanciful as to be ridiculous. And yet here we are. Still dreaming. Still hoping for a better world. As I read through what I had written almost ten years ago, I was struck by the fact that the need to come together and make that dream a reality has never been more urgent. The fight against racism and bigotry would, we all knew, be more of a marathon than a sprint, but I hoped we’d be closer to the finish line than we currently are. Today, on Martin Luther King Day, I thought it appropriate to share this article with you.
April 4th marks the 40th anniversary of the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time, it seemed that James Earl Ray had done more than end the life of a great civil rights leader; to the masses, he had also killed the dream. It was a dream that Dr. King had told to a 250,000-strong crowd gathered at the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington just five years earlier, a dream that one day, all men would be free.
Fortunately for our society, such a noble dream could never be killed; and yet four decades later we are all, sadly, still dreaming.
Today, we live in an anomalous world. The spectre of racism towards the black community still haunts our society, but our ever increasing sense of political correctness rightly makes it socially unacceptable to openly display racist sentiments, or employ the racial epithets which were previously used so flippantly. By the same token, however, the horrifically ill-conceived war against Iraq and Afghanistan, and the subliminal anti-Islamic sentiments that we are drip fed on a daily basis by certain sections of the media and government, have made it socially acceptable to display both racial prejudice and religious bigotry towards the Muslim community. Add to that the contradictory, yet nonetheless deeply held belief that we are a progressive and tolerant society, and suddenly the dream has never seemed so far away.
Dr. King’s dream that one day, all men would be free is today still regarded as the ideal of purely the black community, which is precisely why the dream has not yet come true. The fate of society and the destiny of mankind are tied up in the self same dream. For the notion that all men would, or should, be free does not just mean freedom from oppression, racism or religious bigotry, but also freedom from hatred, whether that be on the part of the hated, or the hater.
The hater hates certain people and cultures because he doesn’t understand them. At the same time, he is blinded to the fact that he will never understand them because he hates them. Meanwhile, the hated cannot understand why their people or culture is the focus of such hostility. This leads to mistrust of the hater’s community; over time, mistrust also turns to hate. It is a vicious cycle which stimulates within us the animalistic ‘herd instinct’, whereby collective aggression is levelled at anyone who is not a member of the herd.
All of these sentiments are compounded by the drip, drip effect of subliminal, media-fed racism, prejudice and separatism, conditioning people in the myth of white supremacy. Social and educational research suggests that people have a far stronger response to subliminal messages than to direct facts. Thus, the horror of the drip, drip effect is that some people actually begin to believe that their security, and the security of their families and communities, depends upon the oppression of others.
As a society, are we really so blind and naïve that we do not recognise the lessons of history? We react with justifiable revulsion when we hear stories, or see film of the Holocaust. We recoil in disgust at images of lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. So why then do we not realise that we are once again heading down that same terrible road? Why are we not thoroughly dismayed and ashamed at ourselves that we have not yet met racism and bigotry head on and stamped it out once and for all?
It would be easy to go along with the theory that that is just the age we live in and accept the status quo, rather than continue on the hard road towards the dream. The truth is, however, that for all our sakes, we must continue along the road, no matter how difficult the way becomes. In the words of the novelist Robert James Waller, ‘Life is never easy for those who dream.’
In order to understand the inanity of racism, let us strip it down to the bare bones. To hate, or mistrust, or simply believe that we should stay away from, those of a different colour, race or religion, is as nonsensical as saying that brunettes should not mix with blondes, or that blondes should hate redheads.
In 1963, when Dr. King gave his now world renowned speech, he said ‘I refuse to accept that man is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.’ As he spoke those words, everyone who heard and believed them knew that in an era of segregation, they had a mountain to climb if they were to bring about that reality. They knew that racism was symptomatic of the condition of ignorance and that bringing an end to racism and segregation was not simply a matter for the legislature; it was also a matter of education, both of the individual and of society.
Today, we seem to have forgotten that truth. Whilst the UK never had a civil rights movement such as that of the United States, the government did, during the 1980’s and 1990’s, attempt to stem the tide of racism that had been sweeping the country since the mass immigration of Asians and West-Indians of the 1950’s and 1960’s, by making it an offence to discriminate against a person because of the colour of their skin, or the nature of their religion. Yet as the American civil rights campaigners of the 1960’s discovered, legislation alone is merely a sticking plaster on the festering wound that poisons our society. Education is the antidote to that poison, for people are not born racist, they are taught to be.
Yet all is not lost. There is still time, but the time is now. No longer do we live in a segregated world. Instead we live in a world of multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-faith communities. We therefore have the perfect opportunity to instigate that individual and social education, to teach our children the beauty of humanism, and bring about an end to racism and bigotry.
Mark Twain once wrote that ‘Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do, than by the ones you did do.’ It has now been forty years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died because of a dream. Let us mark this anniversary by honouring his legacy in the noblest way possible. Let us learn the lessons of our history. Let us not only come together under the umbrella of the same dream, but have the courage and the conviction to make that dream a reality.