Stretching Toward the Goal of America: Freedom
Communities of color have always known this truth: there are two Americas. In one, prosperity and opportunity are abundant and flow freely. In the other, systemic racism, inequity, and the concentration of power in the hands of wealthy, white men choke out dreams and vanquish hope for so many. In no way in recent history was this as clear as it was when a mob stormed the Capitol in an attempted coup of our government and democracy.
It was impossible to avoid comparisons to the summer’s peaceful Black Lives Matter marches. When BLM protesters — often large, multi-racial and multi-generational groups — took to the streets nationwide, they were met with an overwhelming police presence, ready to deploy rubber bullets and pepper spray. But when domestic terrorists assembled earlier this month in Washington, D.C., it was almost as if a welcome mat was laid before them as they rushed past law enforcement into the hallowed halls of our legislature.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we observe every January, spoke of the two Americas in his “The Other America” speech, delivered on April 14, 1967, before students, faculty and staff at Stanford University.
“In a sense, this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity,” he said. “This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions.”
The other America “has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair,” he continued. He described the millions of “work-starved” people who “walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist … In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
The sad and sobering truth about Dr. King’s words is that, nearly 60 years later, there remains two Americas.
But today, as we prepare for the inauguration of a new president and the beginning of a new administration and leadership, it is incumbent upon us, as Dr. King did, to hold on to hope. Neither people of color nor white communities will ever realize the ideals of this nation if we don’t first acknowledge the interconnectedness of our lives.
We need systems that ensure everyone is included in our nation’s prosperity and every working person’s contribution to that prosperity is given due respect and properly valued. And we need a government that takes the side of working people and the impoverished and that guarantees the shared prosperity that we have earned, including living wages, access to healthcare and child care, and paid sick days and family and medical leave that allow us to heal, take care of our loved ones, and protect public health.
Neither whites, nor communities of color, will actualize these rights alone.
“In a real sense, we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” Dr. King said, “tied in a single garment of destiny … we have difficulties ahead but I haven’t despaired. And I still believe that these problems can be solved.”
While recognizing the extent of racist views, Dr. King was convinced that “there are still many white persons of good will. And I’m happy to say that I see them every day in the student generation who cherish democratic principles and justice above principle, and who will stick with the cause of justice and the cause of Civil Rights and the cause of peace throughout the days ahead. And so I refuse to despair. I think we’re gonna achieve our freedom because however much America strays away from the ideals of justice, the goal of America is freedom.”