Does King’s Dream Delude Us?

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Mike McQuillan, a founding member of the Hope in the Cities National Network, teaches history at the Brooklyn (NY) School for Global Studies. He coordinated the Crown Heights Coalition’s two-year healing program after the August 1991 racial conflict.

I have just returned from Healing History: Memory, Legacy and Social Change, the just-ended Hope in the Cities-sponsored conference in Richmond, VA, where people for three days shared stories and explored racial justice efforts in our country and elsewhere.

That organization’s twenty-two year record of dialogue, action and change has made more inclusive Richmond’s narrative of enslavement and Civil War, discrimination and Civil Rights. The Tredegar Iron Works, a red-brick riverside plant which made Confederate munitions is now a museum highlighting northern, southern and African American perspectives on the war. The Richmond Slave Trail, from Manchester Docks where slave ships landed to Lumpkin’s Jail where families were torn apart and sold and to the Virginia State Capitol’s now-pastoral grounds where Jim Crow lynchings occurred, adds truthful hidden history to the city’s pantheon of Confederate memorials. Diverse voices today craft policies within the Capitol’s hallowed halls and Richmond’s nearby City Hall.

These are benchmarks, not outcomes, but make the city a racial role model for urban America – the first to publicly and formally acknowledge its complicity in slavery. “Acknowledge the past, embrace the present, shape a future of reconciliation and justice,” a Reconciliation Statue inscription concludes.

I found myself eyeing people in cafes and cars as I walked block upon block between conference workshops. Were passersby aware of the progress? I vacillated between pride and pain as iconic Confederate sites provoked strong emotions. The trestle that brought Jefferson Davis’ inaugural train into Richmond and the ground at which he was sworn into office as Confederate President were for me hard to handle. Sensing the white masses’ celebratory shouts that day I felt lonely and small.

I wondered whether Richmond will make further progress when our generation retires. 1963 March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin taught graduating seniors at Tuskegee Institute’s commencement that “history consists of alternating periods of hope and despair,” with which I agree but at 62 find hard to accept.

I also wondered whether the conference theme of racial healing and reconciliation can scale the walls of institutions within which diversity rarely rises past mid-management.

Jackie Robinson sought front office baseball positions in vain when he ended his Hall of Fame playing career. He founded Harlem’s Freedom National Bank to provide people of color with financial services white Americans took for granted. Robinson as Chock Full O’ Nuts Inc.’s Vice President for Community Relations (and the nation’s first Black corporate executive) lobbied successfully for African Americans’ equal pay and working conditions.

To what extent have “other Robinsons” in America reached true power positions? How often must those who have tread lightly and moved slowly to assure anxious whites that fears of “racism in reverse” are unfounded? Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and New York’s David Dinkins faced that dilemma. So has President Obama.

And where and when will a police department official apologize for frequent killings of unarmed Black men? “The problem of police behavior in minority communities” that Dr. King during a Detroit speech in 1966 decried as “the nation’s main racial problem” goes on unchecked. While NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has said “unless we address the race issue we’ll never solve the other problems,” no police leader has said “we will make right what we’ve done wrong historically, with amends for the trauma and losses we’ve caused.” President Obama’s White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing proposed that “The Department of Justice should develop and disseminate case studies that provide examples where past injustices were publicly acknowledged by law enforcement agencies in a manner to help build community trust” but do examples exist?

Historian Howard Zinn implied that massive civil disobedience, not the electoral process, was our best hope for dismantling institutional racism and redirecting government resources from militarism to human needs. But his prescription could recreate Egypt’s tragic template for revolution, repression and chaos unless we ensure it would enhance our democracy.

Reverend Tee Turner, Hope in the Cities’ Director of Reconciliation Programs, reflected over coffee, “To be real, I know there’s much more to be done, in the community and from an organizational standpoint. That doesn’t mean we haven’t done ‘good works.’ I’m pleased with our progress though I’ve heard the grumbling about what could or should have been done.”

Concerning whether civil disobedience would transcend institutional resistance to systemic change he added “we want change but we haven’t really thought about what that change would look like or how it could become a win-win solution. Do we have a strategy toward a structure that allows for the wellbeing of everybody?”

That admirable ethic makes Hope in the Cities effective. Rooted in the ability to see an opponent’s humanity, it proffers not a slap but a handshake, a step toward acknowledgement, dialogue, change. That path out of conflict shines a light toward the future. But conventional wisdom still calls that weakness.

In antiwar activist David Dellinger’s words, “There is a heady sense of manhood that comes from advancing from apathy to commitment, from timidity to courage, from passivity to aggressiveness. There is an intoxication that comes from standing up to the police at last” though this was suicidal during Newark’s 1967 race riot and devastating after the Grand Jury verdict in Ferguson.

The Richmond conference restored my faith in good works by good grassroots people. But I believe institutional racism and our profit-driven capitalist economy prohibit equality. European economist (and conference panelist) Marcello Pallazi, whose Progressio Foundation champions ethical entrepreneurial practices in business and government, said, “In theory it’s possible but there are lots of conditions.”

Rev. Michael Weeder, dean of the Anglican Cathedral of St George the Martyr in Cape Town and Bishop Tutu comrade in South Africa’s antiapartheid revolt, said at a Richmond forum that his country “must educate young people to challenge economic inequality.” But I find in my fifteenth teaching year that New York City’s public schools are preparing our youth to become cogs in the system. Their “College- and Career-Ready!” mantra denies the active citizenship that Jefferson and Dewey claimed schools must instill to ensure an enduring democracy. Corporate encroachment on the innovative intent for creating charter schools and the intrusion of “efficient business models” into public school administration instilled a top-down fault-finding micromanagement for political control.

“Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of the day …. [T]he diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected,” a Jefferson letter (1816) stated. Dewey added in Democracy and Education (1916) that “a progressive society counts individual variations as precious since it finds in them the means of its own growth. Hence a democratic society must, in consistency with its ideal, allow for intellectual freedom and the play of diverse gifts and interests in its educational measures.”

Was King’s vision of the “Beloved Community” an illusion or can we achieve it? Was he right to embrace socialism in his last years? Does his philosophical progression address our dilemma? Is an as-yet undefined democratic socialism the ultimate destination for “dialogue, action and change”?

Might the next conference address that?

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