Obama and Dreams: A Reply to a Liberal Friend

Written last night in response to how moving it was that a young, black trick-or-treater dressed up as Michelle Obama, and how important the election (most likely) of a black man would be for the country:

I am happy to join with Chris today in what will go down in history (most likely) as a symbolic passage of limited, but real, significance for the progress of our nation.

Forty-five years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow I write tonight, gave a great oration in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This momentous speech came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of human beings who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end a long night of their suffering.

But forty-five years later, African Americans are still not equal. Forty-five years later, even with an African American about to ascend to the presidency, African Americans still suffer from a lower life expectancy, a higher incarceration rate, a higher infant mortality rate, and from systematic prejudice, still sadly crippled by the manacles of economic as well as de facto segregation and the still-iron chains of discrimination. Forty-five years later, despite a growing African-American upper-class, real achievements in equality of opportunity, the end to race barriers at upper-class institutions from Harvard to the White House, far too many African Americans live on a lonely island of relative -- and absolute -- poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Forty-five years later, an African-American candidate for president has exiled the poor -- black, white, yellow, and brown -- to the corners of American political discourse. And so I write here tonight to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense, Obama has come to our nation's capital to cover a debt still owed. 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, women as well as men, gays as well as straights -- would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has still yet to make good on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color, too many of her women, and her gay citizens are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given these people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is as bankrupt as our treasury. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, whether Obama prevails or not, we must cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice -- the freedom of economic justice and the justice of economic security.

I have also returned to this hallowed speech to remind my friends of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of self-congratulation or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of poverty and discrimination to the sunlit path of racial, economic, and social justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of economic injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of our children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This electoral season of the legitimate discontent of the forgotten millions will not pass until there is an invigorating spring of freedom from fear; of the equality of opportunity, health, welfare; of a return of the rule of law; and of a retreat from imperial designs abroad. Two thousand and eight is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that Obama's ascension was all that was needed to blow off the steam of class warfare and legitimate discontent, sometimes expressed in ugly words, that Obama's reign will spread content among those classes who do not rule will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until all her people are granted their human rights: freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of expression, and freedom of -- and from -- religion. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my friends: In the process of gaining the White House for Obama, you must not be guilty of delusional thoughts. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for justice by drinking from the cup of image and propaganda. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into consumerist gesture. Again and again, we must rise to inescapable duty of meeting real injustice, whatever its source, under whomever's watch, with integrity and stubbornness.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the critics of Obama, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as anyone is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality, whether on our streets as a daily routine, outside the "free speech zones" that surround our political conventions, or in the Gulags we have set up around the world, most infamously at Guantanamo Bay. We can never be satisfied as long as our civil liberties are sacrificed for political gain. We cannot be satisfied as long as the the poor's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our prisoners, many wholly innocent and admitted to be so, are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by institutionalized torture. We cannot be satisfied as long as a corporate bailout is forced through against the will of the people and neither party's candidate utters a word of protest. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

I am not unmindful that some of you have come to view my e-mails as tribulations. Some of you have come to ignore them, to mock them. And some of you have come to invest so much in Obama because the past eight years have left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of official brutality. You have been the veterans of increasingly desperate times. If Obama does indeed win, continue to work with the faith that unearned accolades are empty. Go back to work on November 5th, even if Obama wins, knowing that this situation cannot and will not be changed without redoubled efforts of all kinds.

Let us not wallow in an orgy of self-congratulation, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day in the deserts of Iraq, the sons and daughters of former slaves and the sons and daughters of former slave owners will be able to dismantle all evidence of our presence there.

I have a dream that one day even the prison at Guantanamo, a dungeon sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that candidates for public office, officials of all kinds, and indeed all Americans will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, America, with its vicious history of imperial warfare, with its leaders' lips dripping with the words "American exceptionalism" -- one day right here in our city on a hill, we will learn humility and be able to join hands with little Arab boys and Iranian girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to work with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be truly free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, when we truly welcome it in every country, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Christians and Muslims, gay and straight, women and men, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!