Dan Hall: Let's celebrate King in our white suburbs

Dan Hall

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is among the most poetic and passionate orations ever delivered. I try to avoid quoting it in columns, however, because as with Shakespeare, his words have been repeated so many times they now sound like clichés. Some of their best lines turn up even in advertisements for used cars.

How sad that “I Have a Dream” has become so sanitized a part of our history. Especially in our mostly all-white suburbs, the events of the late 1950s and early 1960s no longer touch us.

Few recall that just four months before King delivered that speech, he was in jail, in solitary confinement in Birmingham, Alabama. Outside, police chief Bull Connor used dogs and tear gas even against children protesting the “Whites Only” signs at the city’s lunch counters. Nor did King’s speech in Washington that August provide the happy ending that is so often portrayed today. Some of the most horrific events of that era were yet to come. The deaths of four little girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, and the bloody beatings of marchers in Selma, Alabama, lay months and years in the future.

Neither the speech nor those cruelties that followed dissuaded large numbers of Americans, south and north, who stubbornly clung to the notion that civil-rights demonstrators were troublemakers, maybe even Communists, and that “states’ rights”  or “property rights” justified exclusion of black people from restaurants, schools and jobs. Hillary Clinton is correct that while King and the blacks and whites who marched with him awakened the conscience of the majority, success also required the legislative skills of President Lyndon Johnson to push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through a reluctant Congress.

How unfortunate that for most of us, what will be most notable about Martin Luther King Day tomorrow will be that kids will not be in school, banks will be closed, and  mail won’t be delivered. Yet this year America has special reason both to remember our past and to congratulate ourselves on how much closer we are coming to actually living King’s dream.

Barack Obama may or may not become our next president. Race ought not to be the reason to vote against a particular candidate; it also ought not be the reason to vote for. Still, only the extremely obtuse can fail to recognize the significance of the millions of people, black and white, who have united behind Obama thus far. Not only many Americans but also others around the globe — especially the people of Africa, Asia and South America — would see in his election a long overdue affirmation of the words of our forebears about the equality of all mankind.

Even the election of a black president, however, would not erase the past. African-Americans have a 389-year history on this continent. The first 245 were years of slavery; the next 100 were years of legal segregation and discrimination. Only 47 years have passed since Congress finally outlawed segregation.

 Even today, while polite society rejects obvious racism, Internet message boards spread garbage about Obama turning the White House into the “Black House” or “Chimp House.” Chain e-mails spread the lie that he belongs to a black-racist church. The lingering effects of those centuries of servitude, and the second-class status that followed, moreover, contribute mightily to the poverty and violence that still entraps so many African-Americans in urban ghettos across our land. A people who were pushed to the bottom of the heap for nearly five centuries cannot climb out overnight.

Let’s make Martin Luther King Day a real holiday, one that recognizes not only the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, but also the realities of racism today.

In Canandaigua, one of the very few suburbs that offer a community celebration, people will gather outside City Hall at 11:50 a.m. tomorrow and march to the Congregational Church nearby. There will be prayer, music, a skit by Canandaigua Academy students and lunch afterwards.

King’s message was not only about fairness for black people. He saw racism as spiritual baggage weighing on us all.     

 On that, I will quote the end of his oration in August of 1963: He looked forward to the day when “all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old Negro spiritual:

“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Dan Hall is the former editorial editor for Messenger Post Newspapers. E-mail