A little more than 45 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and dreamed aloud of a day when all Americans would live in a land where they would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. We celebrate King's legacy and his dream on Monday of this week. On Tuesday, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the nation's first African-American president.
Has King's dream come true?
It has for the talented tenth, at least insofar as politics is concerned. The color line has been erased in American politics, or so it seems. Sure, racial tensions seethe beneath the surface of this apparent success. But to an extent unthinkable a few short years ago, race is as much a state of mind as a skin color. I imagine Barack Obama's face on a lapel button, a dark silhouette against a sea of white. Beneath his image the words: "What's your excuse?"
Barack's grace makes rap passe. What now for the angry black man? Does P. Diddy now walk into a room and order a Dewars neat?
I am not naive. Race still matters. It always will, but it suddenly seems to matter not nearly so much. At least I hope it matters less.
In the days leading up to and immediately following the election my wife would nervously turn on the television each morning. "Why do you do that?" I asked.
"I want to see if he's dead yet," she replied. She is a gentle soul, but we are old enough to remember King's murder, and the murder of the Kennedys, and cities aflame in anger and grief. Something in us expects the worst. How can we get off so easily as a nation after centuries of slavery, three-fifths of persons, Jim Crow and the thousand and one insults that have become a constant, much like a center of gravity in the psyche even of people of good will?
I did not vote for Obama. And I could not bring myself to vote for McCain. I wrote the name Clarence Darrow on my ballot. He seemed a man of transforming genius; someone I can admire.
But I am now watching Obama with eyes akimbo with wonder. What will he say on Inauguration Day? Will he acknowledge the dawn of a new era? Will he take the day to focus on the still obvious wounds of class that divide us, not just as a nation, but as a world?
I long to hear words of hope. Hope died so long ago for so many of us. What will Obama tell us? Will he say:
"Today a dream is fulfilled and new day dawns. We are a broken vessel. Rich and poor we look to an uncertain future, one filled with doubt about whether we can offer the sustaining hope of prosperity to all. Some have lost homes. Others have lost jobs. The very Earth on which we stand trembles and seems poised to shed us. Nations war against nations, and a world filled with wretched people sighs. Is it time?
"Is it time to put aside the dogmas that divide us? I dream of a day in which the world is a stranger to no man. In which Moslem says to Jew and Jew to Moslem: "Welcome brother." Have we not lingered long enough in sorrow?
"I dream of a day in which a child cast into Africa's bush can eat without fear that today's meal will be her last. Where the world's rich feel poor enough in spirit to shed luxury for humanity. Where no nation feels threatened by the request to live at peace, and in concord under law, with other nations.
"We've boasted now for centuries that we are a City on a Hill. But I tell you, I dream of a day when all nations live on the bountiful plane of prosperity. Where the very Earth that sustains us becomes one world with liberty and justice for all. Is it time for the world to become one?
"Is it time to realize the dream that has for so long lingered in the souls of those with courage to see? Is a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, now amid us? Can we unite in a common faith born of a shared sense that this world is ours, all of ours?
"I am one man facing a nation on this the day of one dream fulfilled. But I tell you, new dreams must be born today. The future beckons and dares us to hope. I tell you, I believe, and I know that you, too, believe in what is to come. We each need to help one another in our disbelief.
"Tomorrow beckons. It is time to put aside old divisions and to be bold, just as those who came before us long ago were bold. We've never lost the need for heroes and dreamers and men and women with visions that burst the very binds that tried to contain them.
"We are free at last. Free, I tell you of chains that became second skins. Free of ancient hatred. Free of blinders that let us look in only safe and chartered directions. We are free so long as we dream.
"Let us celebrate today. It is a time for joy, and song, and the sweet sound of ancient cymbols. Dance, and make a joyous noise. And when the morrow comes, dream a new dream. A new world is at hand. It is time we create it."