On August 28, 1955, a black boy was dragged from his great-uncle’s home near the Mississippi Delta, tortured, beaten and shot through the head. His body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River. The boy was Emmett Till, a 14-year-old visiting from Chicago. His heinous crime was the rumor that he whistled at a white lady.
He was pulled up from the riverbed three days later, the rusty old cotton gin fan still wrapped around his neck. Badly decomposed, the body was identified as young Emmett’s by the initials on the ring of one of his fingers — “L.T.,” the initials of Emmett’s father, killed while fighting in World War II. Back in Chicago, Emmett’s mother demanded an open-casket funeral, forcing the world to witness the inhuman brutality of racism.
On Wednesday, August 28, 1963 — exactly eight years after Emmett Till’s murder, and 50 years ago today — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial calling for “jobs and freedom.”
“I have a dream,” Dr. King spoke, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”
Now, on the 50th anniversary of King’s ringing words, I guess it’s appropriate that we should look around and assess how far we’ve come. That Americans have elected a black man as their President presents a major milestone in our evolution toward a more equal and just society.
Our having a black President isn’t really that big a deal, and we should’ve expected no less from a country as supposedly dedicated to justice and equality as America. All we did in 2008 was fulfill the prediction Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy made in 1968, when he said that “in the next 40 years a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother has.” There was a time, however, when America surpassed all predictions.
Yet, the greatest prophesy made in the last 100 years, Dr. King’s dream, remains unfulfilled. And there’s nothing more dangerous than a dream ignored and forgotten:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
Maybe it explodes. Maybe it’s already exploded.
Perhaps better than any place in America, Chicago knows how unfulfilled the dream is. Chicagoans know where our poor live and what color their skin is. We know who’s dying of hunger, disease, addiction and gun violence, and who’s not. We know which segment of the population is seeing their schools closed and their jobs sent somewhere else. We know which Chicagoans live in the land of opportunity and which ones live in the land of shuttered doors.
Chicago sits on the ruins of an exploded dream.
Now the time for dreaming is over. Now is the time for planning and doing. We can’t wait for reforms that might never come. Now is the time to tear down every pillar and brick of America’s racist past, and begin building on the foundations set by our forebears — those who gave their sweat and blood to the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Chicano Movement and the Gay Rights Movement. We can’t wear our conviction on our pins, t-shirts and Facebook walls. Now is the time to let our conviction permeate our muscles and bones.
The dream of a more just and equal America will be realized when enough Americans wake up and decide they no longer want to live in the kind of country that Emmett, Malcolm, Martin and Trayvon died in. The promise of America will be achieved when Latinos, blacks, whites, Asians, Native Americans, Arabs and Jews in the United States drop the very notion of “other” entirely. There is no “other” in America. There is no “them and us.” Whatever happens to blacks or Latinos, happens to all Americans. Whatever affects the poor or Puerto Ricans, affects everyone else. Just one oppressed and disenfranchised American means the oppression and the disenfranchisement of America itself.
We truly are one nation, maybe not “under God,” but under something. Under a singular idea, that the whole of humanity can come together in one land and live in common brotherhood and sisterhood, “with liberty and justice for all,” equally.
I don’t live in such a country. Neither do you. But I await the day when I can finally set foot in it and breathe its air. If that place doesn’t exist, then let’s build it.
Where, you ask?
Right here, in the rubble and debris of an exploded dream.
[Photo: Ron Cogswell via Flickr]