Saturday, February 20, 2016

Freedom Dreams

The Declaration of Independence states, "all men are created equal."  Present perfect tense.  At the moment of their creation, and continuing thru today, equality exists, for each man, without the interference or facilitation of any other man.  This equality is a truth, this truth is self-evident, and no other authority than God ("The Creator") is the source of this truth.

Dr. King references the founding documents and this portion of the Declaration early in his "I have a Dream" speech given August 28th, 1963:

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." 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."

Powerful words, certainly.  Subtly different, though, than the Declaration.  Rather than claiming a state of equality that already exists, as in the Declaration, Dr. King speaks of rights that "would be guaranteed."  This future perfect language is in keeping with the theme of a promise made-and-not-yet-fulfilled that is the central theme of this paragraph.  This grammatical selection guides the tone of the speech in a very meaningful and subtle way that has bearing on our politics today.

Dr. King's words indicate that the black man will receive his freedom as the result of some separate act that had not yet occurred by the time the Declaration had been written.  If that is the case, then someone must be empowered to ensure this act, the provision of freedom for the black man, would at some point actually occur following the inception of the Declaration.  Who holds the authority to fulfill such a gift?  The Declaration states that only The Creator has this authority.  If Dr. King was likewise claiming that unalienable rights for the black man are given by God then there would be no need for the gift to be deferred until some later date: The gift was conferred at creation.  Thus Dr. King must be referring to some power other than God when awaiting the receipt of freedom for the black man.

The most reasonable authority to assume Dr. King refers to in this moment is the white man, particularly the white man in positions of political, social and economic authority across America contemporary to Dr. King's time.  The idea that the authority to grant freedom lies in the hands of any man contradicts the very bold truths stated by the founding fathers in the Declaration.  The white man that presumes to hold this power has usurped this authority from God ('The Creator").  The words that Dr. King uses serve to validate this seizure of authority by the very nature of his appeal to these leaders.  Dr. King imbues these white men with a power they presume to have and indeed act upon but is in reality a power they do not possess and never truly possessed.

Given the realities of the time, the events of history, and his desire to encourage reluctant political leaders to make difficult social, political and economic changes, this is not an unreasonable path for Dr. King to take.  This article is not intended to criticize his choices.  I stand in awe of what he said, how he said it, and the impact his speaking of it had on our broken nation.

The purpose here is to ponder the different path we might find ourselves on as a nation had the thought been "we are already free" instead of "we would like to see the promise fulfilled that someday the black man, too, would be granted freedom, if his fellow man would allow it."  Dr. King's key line rewritten:

This note was a statement of fact that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, already have the 'unalienable Rights' of 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'
One of the first appearances of the separation caused by Dr. King's chosen path of a fulfilled promise is in the conclusion of that target paragraph, which twice separates America from black people, discussing his target population as "citizens of color" and "the Negro people" as distinct divisions separate from the body known as "America."

The power of this argument is revealed when considering the grievances Dr. King presents:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self- hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

The treatment of the black race in America, under slavery, Jim Crow, and social racism in general, is a tragedy.  Many people were harmed, hurt, killed as a result of these practices.  Many real people were real victims of real crimes of varying magnitude, none of which are justifiable.

Indeed, this is how Dr. King's statements above are presented: "...the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors..."  All of the grievances noted above are presented as an act against the black man.  This victim-focused presentation is in keeping with the "would be guaranteed" language noted earlier that considers the black man as free only when the white man permits it.

Now re-cast this paragraph from the perspective that the black man is already free, that his rights are as unalienable as any other man's, and that this is guaranteed by God.

We devotees of civil rights affirm that we are already free men, and ask those who perpetrate the unspeakable horrors of police brutality when will you cease your abuse?  When will the purveyors of the hotels in our cities and the motels of the highways decide to welcome all those who are heavy with the fatigue of travel?  When will the landlords and homeowners permit all men who are able to rent their lodgings or buy their homes for sale, regardless of the neighborhood?  When will the creators of the signs stating "For Whites Only" realize that their selfhood and dignity is secured through inclusion rather than exclusion? [...]

The transformation is astounding.  Do not pity the black man.  Do not ask the black man when he will be content with the improvements you deign to grace upon him.  Look to your own actions, look into your own hearts and see the pain, the terror, and the exclusion you wreak upon your fellow man, your fellow free man.  See your sin clearly and end the evil you are perpetrating.  Secure, defend and preserve the rights provided by the Constitution for all men, black and white.

The victim language of this section of the speech encourages (perhaps requires...) all involved, even us today, to maintain an ongoing awareness of the race of each of our neighbors.  The white man is afforded some leniency... charged to eliminate the abuses, but only up to the point at which the black man is satisfied.  To accomplish this, the white man must consider if a neighbor or peer is black or white prior to determining how to interact with this person.  The white man must consider the race of the person in order to inquire if some arbitrary threshold has been met.  The language also leaves open the possibility that some abuses can remain and be considered acceptable, as long as those remaining abuses live below the thresholds established by the victims in question.

Likewise, this language affords leniency to the black man.  He alone would establish what thresholds must be met to achieve satisfaction.  Dr. King's list of examples surely is much shorter than the full list of possible grievances.  The longer list, even if provided in full at the time of the speech, could still be subject to change in the future.  This is too much temptation for any man of any race.  Indeed, I would present that we see a portion of this flexibility in current times.  Institutional racism has surely been eliminated now, but still we see black men accusing white men of racism in today's media, politics, and courthouses.  Under the regime established in this paragraph by Dr. King, there is no clear cut end point at which all grievances are resolved.

If, however, we work from the idea that the black man is already free, then at the moment of the speech the black man is the equal of the white man.  From the moment of this realization forward the challenge becomes a personal one for each man involved: Can the white man acknowledge his sinful actions against his neighbors and terminate those evil and cruel acts?  Can the black man stand confident in the truth of his already present freedom to challenge the impositions placed against him in court and by appealing to his neighbors?  In neither case is it required for one man to be aware of the race of his peer.  The white man is charged to stop his own foul treatment to meet the threshold of the Declaration, and no movable goalposts subject to the mood of the black man need be considered.  Each simply needs to comport himself as if all men are equal under the law.

The benefits of this perspective extend into the law as well.  With the "all already free" paradigm there is no need to legislate, adjudicate of enforce laws that require an assessment of the race of any man.  All that is needed is to understand whether one man cheated, defrauded, hurt, excluded another in a manner that is not consistent with the race-neutral laws that already exist.  Any laws on the books specifying different treatment based on race could simply be eliminated.

Please note that my purpose here is not to say "I could have given a better speech."  I could not have, and would not have, and have never created anything akin to the powerful message and moment that Dr. King presided over when he gave this speech.

My objective here is to consider a perspective on the speech that I believe is meaningful, particularly so in light of the legacy of the speech and the political, social and economic realities of our modern day, where a seemingly false sense of racism is present and perhaps even abused by various parties, black and white.

Let us honor the power of the speech as given, and be gracious in accepting the gift that Dr. King provided to us all, but let us also recognize the faults of the speech and the opportunity that recognition provides for us all as we continue to purge racism from our society.

Racism ends the moment we openly acknowledge that all of us, every man of all races, are already free, with no further action required, because God, The Creator, made it so and no man can possibly override that authority.

Live the dream, today.  We are free at last.

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