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Decades Later, Why is Martin Luther King’s Dream Still a Dream?

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“I have a dream…” But America made his wife Coretta’s life a nightmare. Widowed and left to raise their children alone.

Before King’s death, it was a living hell. Bombed home, bullied by strangers and blamed by his own, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

We quote it but how many of us know that a year later he was sent a blackmail letter from the Federal Bureau of Investigation?

“You are done,” it said repeatedly. His illicit affairs were on tape, and they were going to make them public.

To avoid being discredited and labeled a fraud, he was encouraged to end it all by taking his own life. The writer had numbered his days: 34. He was a dead man walking.

Cameras and binoculars, King was under government surveillance during the Montgomery bus boycott and well into the 1960s. It was legal, a part of the Racial Matters Program.

They followed him to the letter and until his untimely death. In one memo of thousands kept, King is called, “the most dangerous and effective Negro (sic) leader in the country.”

King was labeled a communist. Then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover saw him as a threat and called him “the most notorious liar in the country” during a press conference in 1964.

This after King had criticized the FBI saying, it was “completely ineffectual in resolving the continued mayhem and brutality inflicted upon the Negro (sic) in the deep South.”

Authorized by Robert Kennedy to break in, wires tapped at home and the office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we clap for King now.

We sing, “Happy Birthday” to King now but only after petitions and pressure is it a national holiday. We rewind and play again his words, “Let freedom ring” now.

Complete with a postage stamp, murals and museums in our communities, we display our love for King now.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and was “Time’s Man (sic) of the Year” but died not as an old man, not of natural causes but as a victim of gun violence and hate that continues to this day.

He has a monument on the National Mall now; still, there is a mountain of despair to chip away.

We perform community service and post his words on social media. We host prayer walks and breakfasts, conferences and panel discussions, release balloons (that actually kill birds) into a dreary sky and new books to a divided public.

We champion his cause and celebrate him now. We see what he was trying to do now that he is down on the ground and bleeding out.

One shot rang out while he was in Memphis, Tennessee, to support sanitation workers and now, his words ring true.

Buried, now he is close to our hearts. But when he was alive, America’s citizens were worlds apart.

Today, we still choose these binary narratives and the antagonizing roles of master or slave, pro-slavery or abolitionist, Confederate or Union soldier, black or white, right or left, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.

The fact is, America remains a plantation nation. Pick cotton or any other poison, America will legalize and then capitalize on it.

This is why America remains in the middle of the road and the question remains, “Chaos or community?”

We really don’t want to answer it because we would then have to answer for our own shortcomings. To be sure, it is both personal and systemic.

It is that time of year again when we plan to be better people, make healthier choices and wiser decisions. With a motto and a trial membership, we purchase any number of self-help books and believe this year will be different.

But will it really, when the United States remains geographically and socially segregated? When there is gentrification, “white flight” and a 2013 PRRI poll that said the circles that socially colored white people travel in are 91 percent “white”?

Honestly, how could anyone possibly see a change coming?

Instead, we are going in circles, covered by the news cycle’s endless loop of the reprehensible, our grieving responses and then calls for reconciliation.

When there is talk of reparations and questions of why, how much and to whom while looking at the descendants of American slavery and touting the wealth and power of the United States, when Confederate monuments remain to remind African Americans of the fight to keep their ancestors in bondage, when the murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church much like the murders down at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church gave a generation whiplash, when African American women, men and children continue to die at the hands of police, it is time to take a long look at King’s dead body and answer the question, “Why is it really still a dream?”

Editor’s note: This article part of a series this week for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2020. The previous article in the series is:

Shepherd Your ‘Little Church’ as Thermostat to Alter Society | Aidsand Wright-Riggins

Starlette Thomas

Starlette Thomas is interim pastor of Village Baptist Church in Bowie, Maryland, and minister to empower congregations at the D.C. Baptist Convention.