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Did Dr. King Die in Vain?

Reflections on the Lesser-quoted refrains of “I Have a Dream”

I’ve had the opportunity to hear the Rev. Happy Watkins (a Black Spokane pastor) deliver portions of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech a few times. Happy pounds and whispers and yells with such emotion, it makes you think for a moment you’re actually seeing Dr. King himself.

But given the length of the original speech, most public presentations of it today are shortened. The pieces we hear are the riveting, driving, passionate portions that swell at the end of King’s longer message. And you know what? We are missing some very important pieces.

Here are a few that caught my attention in listening to his famous speech today.

“This is not the time to cool off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism…”

“Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood – to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of this moment. … This summer of the Negroes legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”

“Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.”

That was 1963. Nearly SIXTY years have passed, and it is clear that our nation did exactly what he warned against: took the tranquilizing drug of gradualism (an ideology that suggested perhaps poverty should be address apart from racism, for example); overlooked the urgency of the moment; returned to business as usual.

This is why there is uproar over continued injustice in our country. This is why violence emerges after another story of death of Black person at the hands of a white person in power. We have ignored the warnings that cost King his own life.

We can’t be complacent any more, and we certainly can’t sit by while white supremacists receive empowerment to raise the ugly head of racism to new heights. If we do, we’re complicit in ensuring that the suffering and death of an icon like Dr. Martin Luther King was in vain.