I don’t have to consult a history book to revisit the world Dr. Martin Luther King was speaking to just a few days past 50 years ago.
All I have to do is consult my father.
Joe Stovall is his name. He’s an 81-year old man that calls Tupelo, Miss. his home. When he saw the footage of King speaking, it wasn’t something he had to conjure up through YouTube. He didn’t need a Black history class to recount it.
He remembers it when it happened. My father now has Alzheimer’s disease. It’s not yet severe, and so while talking to him sometimes sounds like listening to your favorite song on repeat, he still has a fairly sharp long term memory.
He still remembers what it felt like to walk by a water fountain that was marked specifically for him. He has painted vivid images for me down through the years, depicting how he would have to cross the street and walk on the opposite sidewalk when he saw a white person — specifically a white woman — walking his way.
I’ve seen his face rise and fall, eyebrows furrowing, eyes watering as he recalls some painful moments and memories, many of which I could see the back-story written on his face. Some, no doubt, were tough enough that he didn’t want to remember.
But through it all, my dad said he and his family of eight brothers and sisters had it pretty good. But not so good that he could be able to hold back his pleasure in 2008 when the first African American President of this nation was elected.
Now, understand, this isn’t about my dad’s politics. This is about signs of progress toward the realization of a dream he listened to some 50 years ago from a black Baptist preacher from Atlanta, Georgia.
“I never thought I’d see the day that something like that would happen,” my dad said while shaking his head in disbelief, smiling and chuckling at the same time. “A black man in the White House? Wow.”
We had that conversation several months ago when he visited me here in Georgia. He and my mother now live in Omaha, Neb.
For my dad, that moment wasn’t about Barack Obama’s politics. It wasn’t about Democrats and Republicans. My dad doesn’t get into that stuff anymore. But he still talks about that day now, I believe, not because his weakened brain cells won’t let him conjure up any other memories.
He talks about it because it’s the closest thing he said he’s ever seen to reversing his experiences of being a black man in a segregated south. And whenever I ask him if he feels like racism and its effects will ever subside from this nation’s landscape, he shakes his head again. But this time, not in disbelief.
It’s too deeply rooted, he says. Blacks and whites have become too complacent, he says. Blacks feel like they’ve arrived now because they can do many things they couldn’t in the past. And whites feel like it’s a discussion no longer needed because we’ve come so far.
And yes, we have come far. My two year old son will have a different experience than I did. He won’t be able to use me as a living, breathing Black History encyclopedia. I haven’t been through even a percentage of what his grandfather has.
But whenever I see racial epithets thrown around on internet message boards by anonymous people hiding behind a screen name, I see it’s still there. Whenever I see people taking to social media to express frustrations over racially charged criminal and murder trials, I see it’s still there.
Whenever I walk into a bathroom stall and some no-name individual scratches in the “n-word” next to a swastika on the wall, I say it’s still there.
And whenever people say things like, “Let’s remember the dream,” I know it’s still there. The “it” is racism. And the fact that King’s dream is still being stated as something we must be reminded of lets me know that we have not arrived.
This may sound bad, but the “dream” rhetoric gets old to me. Because something ceases to be a dream when it actually becomes reality. And the fact that King’s Dream is still a dream only makes me remember one thing.
America still has tons of work to do.