History is always with us, especially on a historic day, in the middle of historic times.
We—the nation of all of us—are celebrating again the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. On this day, we check ourselves and our resolution and our pulse to note if it is true that we still have a dream.
This year’s Martin Luther King celebration and holiday falls in the middle of what is surely one of the most intense, conflicted transitions from the end of one presidential administration to the beginning of another.
It falls in the aftermath of an elegiac farewell speech by Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president after the eight years of his presidency, which will officially end noon, Friday, Jan. 20, with the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States.
On this day, we recall King’s rhetorically soaring, aspirational “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963, in which he has envisioned a future that in spite of the election of Barack Obama remains a dream.
Speeches by Obama and King seemed to echo each other, forward and backward.
In 1963, before thousands of black and many white people, gathered on the National Mall at the Lincoln Memorial, King exclaimed, “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. … “We cannot walk alone.”
Obama, in his speech last week, said that a vision in the wake of his election of a post-racial world was “unrealistic” and said much more work had to be done. He echoed King in describing how the work was to be done by emphasizing empathy. Obama said, “We must all pay attention and listen.” For whites that meant seeing that “the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s.” For black Americans, it meant linking “our own struggles for justice to … the middle-aged white guy … who’s seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change.”
As if to illustrate just how unfinished the task of bridging the racial divide was, the revered and seasoned veteran and icon of the Civil Rights struggles and Selma, Rep. John Lewis from Georgia, told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd in an interview Friday that he could not consider Trump a “legitimate president” because of allegations about Russian hacking during the course of the American presidential campaign, which he said interfered on Trump’s behalf.
Trump, as is often his wont when it appears he is being attacked, took to Twitter in the most fiery way: “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district which is in horrible shape and falling apart. Not to mention crime infested, rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk—no action or results. Sad!”
The exchange ignited a firestorm, a word by now so commonplace as to almost lose its meaning, drawing criticism even from Republican legislators, and exposing once again the gap between African Americans and Trump. Trump cancelled a schedule trip to the National Museum of African American History, but he did meet—at Trump Tower—with Martin Luther King III on Jan. 16.
That Trump should somehow be the subject of controversy during the course of the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday should come as no surprise. One could disagree, or not, with Rep. Lewis’s choice and comments, but it’s even harder to embrace or rationalize the president elect and his Twitter outburst, a not uncommon occurrence (Trump also found time to blast the latest “Saturday Night Live” skit about him). Under Trump, the Twittering of American marches on, a process in which the pause occupied by a thought between action and reaction is consistently erased.
The tweets should in no way take away from the solemnity of the day, its historic impact and the need to remember, nor should they take away from the urgency and desire for the gift of seeing one another whole. We really cannot walk alone, in this time, or any other.