Our topic today is dreams. (Also nightmares, but more on that in a minute.)
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day across America and here in New Hampshire, which, for some reason, was the last state in our nation to adopt the holiday in the name of this transcendent civil and human rights leader.
Dr. King’s famous dream — delivered to a divided nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just over half a century ago — was about America living up to her promise.
And when I listened to that speech yesterday morning, I heard once again his eloquent, passionate plea for what America, at her best, can be.
I heard once again the voice of a personal hero whose dream of America as a place united in brotherhood deeply moved me many decades ago — and whose electrifying expression of that dream has resonated in my ears, and in my heart, ever since.
Flash forward 50 years from that dream and it is time to wake up — because we are in the middle of a nightmare.
Perhaps nightmare is too strong a term. I’m sure there is a better word to describe an America in which the wheels of power in Washington are rigged to roll over the powerless.
Placed in the context of the current political (sorry, I’m still calling it a …) nightmare, Dr. King’s plea that together we might “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” sounds almost naive.
Sadly, the black preacher and his appeal for brotherly love also inspired considerable hatred.
Sadly, today, America’s first non-white president seems to have inspired a similar hatred.
I’m not saying the majority of Republicans have decided to block anything good from happening in America because the president isn’t white.
I don’t know why they’ve decided to do that. Perhaps it is a coincidence that Congress is suddenly unable to do anything now that a black man is in the White House.
I understand that they don’t want a Democratic president to receive credit for any progress in America.
But that doesn’t explain why so many like to caricature him as an un-American Islamic socialist, why we hear the preposterous claim that the Affordable Care Act is somehow like “slavery,” or why some are so fond of using his name in the same sentence with Hitler.
This is not to compare President Obama to Dr. King, but it is interesting that “communist” was among the more polite insults spit at both men.
As I write about Dr. King, it is impossible not to flash back to the days when those leading the charge to adopt the King holiday in New Hampshire included Jim Splaine — then a state legislator and now Portsmouth’s assistant mayor. Back then, my small role involved writing several editorials in this newspaper (Portsmouth, NH, Herald) supporting the cause.
Earlier, despite his initial opposition, President Reagan signed the federal King holiday into law in 1983. A decade later, New Hampshire started its slow move to the right side of history on this issue by adopting a Civil Rights Day.
In 1999, after incoming Gov. Jeanne Shaheen emphasized the issue in her inaugural address (“We cannot end this century without making Martin Luther King Day a part of the heritage we leave to our children”), lawmakers finally approved an official Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday.
Though New Hampshire was the last state to recognize the King holiday by name, I still see that vote as a victory for justice — a vote that honored his dream of achieving deeper bonds of brotherhood across our great land.
Dr. King expressed his dream so vividly that I desperately wish to believe it can be realized. Yes, we have a long way to go. But, despite our current troubles, I hope we have come a long way.
To me — from my fortunate perch here in Portsmouth — it will always have special meaning to hear Dr. King build to that portion of the speech in which he calls out to the Granite State by name.
To me it will always have extra special meaning to hear Dr. King sing the words … “And I say to you today my friends, let freedom ring. From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring.”
– John Breneman