By: Chelsea Davis-Bibb, Ed.D.
It has been 54 years since the death of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and 59 years since he delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. A dynamic speech that will always resonate and be relevant to the day-to-day life we live. Dr. King had a dream for black people, but did his dream align with the American dream?
What is the American dream one might ask? This idea of the “American Dream” came from a historian by the name of James Truslow Adams. He wanted to better understand the crisis of the Great Depression in 1931 and felt that America “had lost its way and placed material success above other values” (Bush Center). The American Dream was intended for everyone to be able to reach their fullest potential. Research defined it as, “the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved,” but one might rephrase this as “the ideal by which equality is available to any American, except black people. If this ideal in which equality was and is given to everyone, then Dr. King would not have had to march, protest, or even recite the “I Have a Dream” speech. Many black people would not have had to shed blood, tears, and even die for equality. Even today, black people are still fighting for the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Black people are still waiting for five words to be true that “all men are created equal.”
Despite everything blacks went through during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King still believed in the American Dream. In his speech he stated, “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” Dr. King believed that even though our nation was at fault in promising a dream that was not meant for black people, he had faith that one day we would get there, and America would deliver the promise.
One issue that Dr. King and many black people fought for were equal voting rights. At the founding of the nation, the constitution did not specify what voting rights were to citizens, and only white men were allowed to vote. It was not until February 3, 1870, where the 15th amendment granted all men the right to vote (National Archives). Despite this ratification, it was still not enough as blacks were still “denied the right to vote by state constitutions and laws, poll taxes, literacy tests, the “grandfather clause,” and outright intimidation” (National Archives). Dr. King put an immense amount of pressure on Congress to pass a law declaring the right to vote for all people without any limitations. Many of our people were assaulted, and some brutally attacked for these rights, specifically the march from Selma to Montgomery that was led by activist John Lewis on March 7, 1965, which is also remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”
This tragic event led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965. This act was a significant moment for black people as this act removed poll taxes and literacy tests that were created to disenfranchise the black vote and gave the federal government control over voter registration in places with consistent discrimination (Stanford University). It is disheartening to me when individuals do not exercise their right to vote. Every time it is time to vote, I remind myself that someone died so that I could have this right. Someone died so that my voice would too be heard.
Sadly today, we are still fighting for voting rights as voting suppression is currently happening in several states. States are passing laws to make it harder for certain groups to be able to vote. These individuals include black people, students, the elderly, and people with disabilities. This suppression includes voter ID laws, mail in ballots, and even cuts to early voting, just to name a few.
Currently, there is great controversy over voting rights as Republicans continue to block legislation over two bills, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, and the Freedom to Vote Act. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and will establish “new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain preclearance before changes to voting practices may take effect” (Congress.gov).
The other bill is The Freedom to Vote Act which addresses “voter registration and access, election integrity and security, redistricting, and campaign finance (Congress.gov). Both bills will be significant in helping combat voter suppression. President Biden expressed his own frustrations with the individuals who continue to support voter suppression in a recent speech he delivered in Georgia. President Biden is ready for both bills to pass and is willing to do whatever it takes, including changing the rules. He stated, “I support changing the Senate rules whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking actions on voting rights.” Vice President Harris also spoke about voter suppression as well and stated that, “The assault on our freedom to vote will be felt by every American in every community in every political party. And if we stand idly by, our entire nation will pay the price for generations to come.”
In Dr. King’s speech, he repeated the phrase “Now is the time.” He mentioned this phrase to place emphasis on the immediate need to act now. We must act with that same urgency today. Now is the time we say no to voter suppression. Now is the time that we do not let the work of those who came before us fold right before our eyes. Now is the time that we work together regardless of race, sex, political affiliation, religion etc. Now is the time!
Although black people and white people can now congregate in the same areas, work together, and drink from the same fountain, we are still not equal. If we were equal, we would not have to march and protest police brutality, stand up against voter suppression and voting rights, equal job opportunities, and so much more. Growing up in school, I remember reading about all these issues from the past. Sadly, I am not reading these things from a textbook anymore as we are living in and watching history repeat itself.
I have heard a few individuals say that integration hurt us. It took me awhile to understand this notion on how integration could possibly hurt black people. If anything, it would make the black community better, as well as America. However, upon further contemplation, integration separated the black community. Take Black Wall Street for instance, which was a prosperous black community with many homes and black businesses in 1921. On May 31st everything changed when a black man was accused of attempting to rape a white woman. With this information, a group of white individuals took justice into their own hands and burned down thirty-five city blocks and left 300 dead and 800 injured (JSTOR Daily). Even though Black Wall Street occurred years before the Civil Rights Movement, this community is an example of what happens when black people work and live together, they flourish. Dr. King wanted equal rights for all people, but he also wanted us to continue to take care of our black communities. If we all stand together like Dr. King and so many people did before us, there is not anything we can not accomplish.
Sadly, on April 4, 1968, we lost this historical figure as he was shot while standing outside on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King may not be alive, but his legacy continues to live on. I can’t help but wonder what his thoughts would be if he were alive today. What would he say about the current state of our nation? What would he do to help bring us back to where we should be?
It is imperative that we continue to educate our children about black history. To do this, we must first educate ourselves, and we must continue to fight for what is right. In the words of Dr. King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
So I leave you with this question, are you living the American dream?