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Beyond The Quotables

Updated: Feb 6

King's overall message matters far more than oft-used snippets

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on January 25, 2024)

Author: Dr. RL Booker

Editor: Veronica Mobley



It's that time of year again when leaders, lay people and people of influence post inspirational messages such as the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "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."


Photo of Dr. Bernice King
Dr. Bernice King

Most people who post this snippet from King's "I have a Dream" speech operate from a place of good intention, but these days, I worry that good intention is not still enough.

In my Feb. 23, 2023, column, I explained that King's quote challenges us to understand we are virtually no different from each other biologically. It also highlights the reality that his little children and millions of black and brown people throughout the United States were judged by the color of their skin without respect for the content of their character. King's daughter, Dr. Bernice A. King, said, "Nothing is more frustrating than to see people take her father's words and use them to fit their situations without acknowledging the context in which he was speaking."


Her father's point was that we had not yet reached the dream he envisioned. Nonetheless, his faith galvanized around the best aspects of humanity. He believed that with faith and persistence "we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope ... We will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood." I often wonder if people understand what the "mountains of despair" and "the jangling discords of our nation" were in the 1960s and whether they are still present in 2024.


In the years following his "I Have a Dream" speech, King gave over 90 speeches and sermons where he explicitly spoke about the persistence of poverty, lack of resources in majority Black schools and communities, wealth inequality and our responsibility to help each other attain the basic necessities of life. Have you heard or read his speeches from 1964 to 1968? If not, I encourage you to. Like many of us, when King received new and valid information, he shifted his views accordingly. King has often been described as one of the sharpest critics of the American Dream. In his 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference speech, King stated, "And one day we must ask the question, 'Why are there 40 million poor people in America?' And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth."


To be clear, King was in no way implying people should be given a handout, nor was he implying that individuals should not take responsibility for controlling the things they can control. In a 1967 NBC News interview with Sander Vanocur, King stated, "I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it's a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many Negroes, by the thousands and millions, have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading."


King also outlined the need for all of us to ask questions about the whole society. I would consider this as one of the tenets of allyship. "We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace," King said. "But one day we must come to see that [a system] which produces beggars needs restructuring."


As you post your King quote this year, I implore you to think about why there have been more than 25 state legislatures that have introduced or passed bills targeting diversity, equity and inclusion, Black history, Native/Indigenous history and Latine history in education. Would this be in line with King's vision of informing our future generations about the years of oppression and the deliberate effort to stigmatize skin color as something worthless and degrading?


For decades, researchers, historians, and others have worked diligently to document and distribute the stories that illuminate the very mountains of despair and the jangling discords that King worked to alleviate. It is time for us to focus on King's full body of work, not just the parts that make us feel good. So, what can you do? You can ask questions challenging the status quo in your sphere of influence. The more work done to dismantle programs targeted at championing civil rights within institutions, the heavier the call for individual actors to carry on the mission of equality and equity within their own spheres. Challenging the status quo is not about excluding people. It is about including those who have historically been intentionally excluded.


Photo by Dr. King folding arms
Dr. King Monument. Photo by: Hugo Magalhaes

There is room for everyone on this great ship of justice, but before we sail into the sunset, there is still work to be done to ensure everyone's security and well-being are cared for. Prior to the 1970s, it only took a moment to see a drinking fountain labeled "whites only" to gather explicit evidence of racism. We have made great strides since King spoke his most famous and inspiring words, but just because apparent forms of racism, such as legalized segregation, have been corrected does not mean the battle has been won.


The insidious nature of inequitable access is less stark and easier to deny, and determining its existence takes information literacy, which takes more time and intentionality. Equity is the new front line. Inequitable access to resources and opportunities is not as visible as segregation. Yet, decades of research and outcomes like a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield study have shown us that a person's zip code determines 60% of one's health.

I challenge you to do your part if you genuinely want to reach King's dream.


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