Every year around January 12th I start listening to the best motivational speaker I’ve ever heard. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is celebrated on the 15th and so I always reflect on his “I Have a Dream” speech, the movie The Boy King, my Southern Christian Leadership Conference marches, and my own attempts at trying to give a voice to the voiceless through volunteering.
This year I’m in a new job and having new conversations (new to me) about racial equity and the role White Americans must play in making it a reality. So, this year I decided to approach January 15th a little differently.
As I reflect on why I celebrate Dr. King, a feeling of disbelief comes over me which is almost immediately replaced with deflation. I’d always focused on his message of non-violent protesting for civil rights. But fifty-plus years later, progress has been slow and at times regressive. So, what if this year, I focused on something else? What if this year I researched his other speeches, his other writings, his other pain points? Would I feel the same way?
I remembered that Dr. King expressed dismay about U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. He had a sense of humor. He spoke out against economic inequality. So for two days in between listening to the music of my favorite artists–Tank, Kendrick Lamar, and SWV–I listened to three of his other speeches (I still think he’s THE motivational speaker) and took at look at one of his books. I accepted the challenge of reviewing “A Time to Break the Silence,” “Our God is Marching On,” “The American Dream,” and “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community.”
“White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change of the status quo.” - Martin Luther King Jr.
In “Our God is Marching,” he makes the point that “It is normalcy all over our country which leaves the Negro perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He makes a similar point in his book “Where Do We Go From Here,” where he says: “The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is especially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”
Afterwards, I accepted their words as pure authenticity and foreshadowing. I FELT differently. I was still disappointed. However, I wasn’t discouraged in an apathetic manner. It was as if he uncovered the word in the word puzzle that I’ve been looking for over the last two years. Have you ever played a word puzzle game, gotten to the last word, used all your hints and still couldn’t figure out the answer? Did you almost give up? What if someone randomly walked up and showed you that it was in plain sight?
That’s how I felt. Most of my life I’ve been thinking through how I specifically can create equity by building a better system. After just two days, Dr. King’s 50+ year old works of inspiration taught me that it’s not my truth to change the system, but instead a task for those who don’t see it as a system in the first place.
The best thing is that I am not the only one who has been reflecting. I now work in a place that seeks to understand and change the dynamics of inequity that people of color struggle through daily. This workplace, these co-workers, these peers took the same challenge and had their own reflections. I’d like to share them with you as well:
My name is Thomas Houston, III and I do have a dream. It does include black men and white men. It does include children of all races sitting at the same table. I recognize that I may not get there with you. But at least for this celebration of Dr. King’s birthday I have a different perception of the man, his dream, and my part to play in helping to ensure it lives on.