I have a dream: the 20th century visions of King and Obama and the “fierce urgency” of our time

mlkihaveadreamgogoFifty years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dreams with the American nation:

“I have a dream 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.’

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I have a dream today!”

Today President Obama, himself the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, honored the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, telling us that because people in Dr. King’s generation marched for justice, “America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.”

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But Obama’s dream remains too limited.  He is still dreaming a 20th century dream of middle class jobs and security: the longing for a society offering  “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures — conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

Such a scenario assumes the stability of the real workers of our economy: the trees and plankton that supply our oxygen and the microorganisms that make our crops grow.  It takes for granted steady, predictable rains and moderate temperatures.

We can no longer make such assumptions, and President Obama is wrong to preach to the nation as though 20th century problems and concerns were still paramount today.

Yes, the problem of the color line still exists in 21st century America.  The unemployed still need jobs.  The racial disparity in prison populations is disgraceful.  But these are not the most pressing issues of our time.

President Obama lauded the young of the 1960s for being “unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better.”

He argued that “that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose serves in this generation.   We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains.”

In fact, we face even greater dangers today than in 1963, and it was dishonest of our President not to allude to the much more serious problems now bearing down on us full force: the juggernaut of global climate change.

The wildfires burning in California this week are the among largest ever recorded in the United States.

The rate of species extinction is faster now than it ever has been in the history of human civilization.

The ice melting at the poles promises to release heat-trapping methane gas at rates not seen since prehistoric eras.

Human population is on track to reach 9 billion or more in this century, way beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth.

We don’t know where all this is leading, but surely we cannot expect positive outcomes from these dramatic planetary shifts.

These interconnected environmental issues are the great challenges of our time, and it is to them that President Obama should have alluded, if he was being honest with himself and with the American people.

Whether or not the Syrians used chemical weapons against their own people; whether or not African Americans get to the voting booth; whether or not the American middle class sinks into poverty…all this will not matter at all when accelerating climate change begins to bring food shortages even to the most cosseted Americans.

Here is what our President should have said today:

‘I have a dream that Americans will step into a leadership role in the great fight of our time, the transition to a sustainable, renewable-energy-based society.

‘I have a dream that people of all nations, all creeds and from every culture on Earth will embrace our common challenge of finding ways to mitigate human damage to the planet, and adapt to the changes that are rapidly coming our way.

‘I have a dream that men and women from all over the globe will stand together, knowing that divided we will fall, but united we have a chance to safely ride out the storms that face us.’

My own personal dream is that our political leaders will stop lying to us, and will summon us to step up to the great ethical and empirical challenge of our time: creating lifeboats on which our children and grandchildren may sail safely into a sustainable future.

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6 Comments

  1. I share your dreams, Jennifer. Proof of our society’s ability to mislead and deceive is the fact that we could not have had a president such as Obama without a dreamer and fighter like King… but Obama seems only able or willing to go halfway. Our pride and joy at having been able to elect a black president is mitigated by our broken hope that he might really have achieved what he said he would achieve.

    Reply
  2. Anna

     /  August 29, 2013

    One of the pivotal events of the Civil Right’s Movement happened in Birmingham, Alabama in May of 1963, when black mothers and fathers allowed their under aged children to leave the relative safety of their school buildings to participate in the Children’s Crusade. Those courageous children represented themselves, their families and ancestors, in an organized and dignified manner. Fully aware they were marching into hostile territory, they encountered the same racist tactics their elders had experienced before them. It’s an astonishing chapter of American history.

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/05/02/how-the-children-of-birmingham-changed-the-civil-rights-movement.html

    Reply
  3. Interesting that you refer to a fierce urgency in this post title and then “what are we waiting for” in your next post.

    We have made progress since the 1960’s, but I fear that in so many areas (civic rights, race relations, women’s rights, the environmental movement) we are now losing ground. Current students don’t have the longer term perspective to notice, but they should be screaming, marching, protesting (peacefully, of course) in the streets and on campuses. But they aren’t even going halfway as Margaret says about our president.

    Reply
  4. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  August 31, 2013

    Well, there was Occupy….and then there wasn’t. I am still trying to understand how that movement died so quickly. Strategic arrests and intimidation of the youth leaders? Cultural conditioning of all of us, teaching us to bow before authority, especially when it wields tear gas and riot gear? My generation has not done a very good job at mentoring the young to question authority, I fear. I am trying to make up for my own failures in that area now.

    Reply
  5. From conversations that I have had with students, they are fearful of getting involved in activism for fear that it will put a mark on their record and hurt their chances of future employment. So another form of cultural conditioning. I wonder how we teach them to question, and act for change?

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  August 31, 2013

      Yes, and these fears are real. Bill McKibben says we older folk have to lead the way, since a “record” is not going to hurt us as much at our age. I agree with him.

      Reply

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