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What Happens to a Dream Deferred? King’s Assassination, 50 Years Later

On April 4th, 1968, an assassin’s bullet pierced the body of one of the greatest Americans we’ve ever known. In the decades following, we’ve lionized and memorialized Dr. King, most notably for the “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered right in our backyard at the March on Washington. And while we’ve paid homage to the face of the Civil Rights Movement, we’ve also done Dr. King’s memory a disservice. We’ve sanitized the radical Dr. King, who spoke forcefully and courageously against the evils of militarism, capitalism and racism. We’ve reduced a legacy of activism to lines about looking at the content of character over skin color.

What we miss in overly simplified interpretations of the Dream speech was Dr. King’s indictment of the United States for its treatment of Black people and failure to provide redress for centuries of systemic and structural inequities.

Dr. King spoke of coming to Washington to cash a check on the promise of equality, but noted that Black Americans were given a bounced check in return:

“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

We are still fighting for many of the same things Dr. King fought for more than five decades ago. But just as he didn’t believe the bank of justice was bankrupt, I don’t either.

If we are serious about honoring the memory of Dr. King, the often damaging color blind approach we take to policy making will no longer cut it.

Those of us who profess to do racial equity work must be explicitly clear about who this work is for. Racial equity is not just about naming your rally, your march or your department. It is about working for, with and on behalf of Black and other people of color. It is about looking at where we have all fallen short of that commitment, being honest about what it will take to live up to our values, and take the steps to get there. Bread for the City was fortunate enough to have clients and staff who were tired of the ways our own unintentionally “color-blind” approach, and held us accountable to what we said we believed in–dignity, service, respect and justice. We had to push and be pushed past our own discomfort to get explicit and do our work differently. We are still working. We make mistakes and we do not always get it right. But when we talk to policy makers and partners about racial equity, we ask, “Do you know that this work is being done on behalf of people of color?” “Can a policy maker in a majority-white ward talk to their constituents about policies that explicitly impact people of color in a positive way that makes it clear why these policies are necessary?”

If we are to succeed, both of these answers have to be, “Yes.”

This is about making good on the promissory note of equity. This is about a reallocation of resources. While many conservatives will dismiss this as a viable solution outright, this radical, yet necessary policy change makes some of my liberal friends uncomfortable too.

I’ve got friends that work on racial equity and racial justice that have concerns about reallocation of resources. I imagine some elected leaders must also have concerns–after all, even with the strong case made by Ta-Neheisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” we have seen woefully few jurisdictions even explore this idea.  To be clear, this city–dare I say, this country–will not be able to achieve its goal of being racially just without policies and practices that make amends for centuries of intentional divestment from Black communities. Put plainly, there cannot be racial equity in this city without a redistribution of resources.

By now, you are probably asking me “but how?!” That is a valid question, and I do not have the answers.

But I do know that in a city as wealthy as DC and a country as wealthy as ours, we can certainly take steps to figure it out. As we are in the midst of DC’s budget season, I would be remiss not to point out that a budget is a great place for elected leaders to start. A budget that spends three times as much to incarcerate and warehouse Black and Brown people as it does to house them in safe, stable housing that they can afford is not the budget of a city that cares about racial equity.

A budget that continues to spend only $40 million to build housing for its most marginalized residents while spending almost $400 million on stadiums is not a budget of a city that cares about racial equity. A budget that does not seek to repair the damage of redlining, legalized segregation, and centuries of being locked out of economic opportunity–a phenomenon that continues to this day–is not the budget of a city that cares about racial equity.  This is a city that is no longer where it was in the days of the control board. It is well-situated and yet, we have such drastic income disparities that see a great few living in opulence while a great many struggle for sustenance.

We are an organization committed to racial justice and racial equity, these are the kinds of conversations you’ll see us having in public moving forward. As Dr. King also said in the Dream speech, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” With a lack of affordable housing, income inequality and a public education system that consistently fails Black and Brown children, gradualism is insufficient funds and bad promissory notes.

We are a district awash with wealth and some of the brightest minds in the world. We need to start acting like it and ensure that every resident can share in that success. On this anniversary of the murder of Dr. King, this is a call for us to stop talking about his powerful legacy and start living it.

4 New comments

Robert | Reply

I really enjoyed reading this. 2 cents, ultimately it’s the responsibility of the citizens to change the narrative. The most powerful weapon the System has is narrative. Also we must address the idea of land rights. America from inception was a country about others. Now it exist under the disguise of European society. It was meant to be a inclusive society, Not given to Creed or Belief.- Thanks for the piece of peace & affirmation

JCorley | Reply

Would very much like to connect or get directive on suggestions to get active on grass roots level. So grievous to witness the blight of human veinga when there are adequate city resources/finances to provide for the disenfranchised…

    BFC | Reply

    Hello! I would encourage you to reach out to BFC’s advocacy team to learn more, https://breadforthecity.org/advocacy/. Staff contacts are listed, and when you click “know more,” it will provide their phone number and email addresses. Best wishes!

Marie Hoffman | Reply

Strong words! And a very frank reminder of the work left to us all to accomplish. Thank you for this exhortation to engage and not just to hope that someone will take care of the injustices for us.

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