One of the great thefts of our time has been the appropriation of this single line from a speech by King by the American Right. King's vision of a time when skin color would count for less than the merits of each individual as a human being is certainly in keeping with his very American vision of justice. Yet, it is also a deeply Christian, eschatological vision.
Part of my disdain for this appropriation is simply this - the price to be paid for reaching this time has yet to be made by those who have decided to ignore the color of skin. In other words, the right is still filled with the bilge of racism; it is deeply ingrained in our national psyche, and while we have indeed made great strides, as events tomorrow will demonstrate, we still have a long way to go. In the end, American racism is not about individual bigotry. It is about an entire country making amends for centuries of dehumanization. Racism is about power, and its lack. It is about accepting responsibility for our own participation in structures that benefit some, while denying entry to others. While we should most certainly move away from individual acts of hatred, we should also recognize the simple fact that ours is still a deeply racist society. We have to say this again and again, accept our complicity in this racism, and do what we can to change it, not to participate in it, to say it again and again.
The Right denies this. They want no part of accepting their part in the on-going racism of America. They have no desire to accept their own complicity in our nation's history of racial violence, dehumanization, cruelty, and state-sanctioned murder. They seem to believe that saying "I never owned slaves" is enough. They seem to believe that not participating in a lynching is something others should see as a mark of virtue.
While King's struggle was certainly a legal one - he wanted the entire structure of segregation, north and south, de jure and de facto dismantled - it also transcended simple legal redress. He was pursuing Justice, God's justice, the Kingdom of God. It is a struggle that will always be ongoing, and we can never lag behind in our commitment to it. It is not enough to simply decide to take King at his words, when the end result is to judge those of a different skin color of less worth using a different set of criteria. This is dressing one's bigotry up in a nice suit. No price is paid to those whose mangled bodies and lives line our history, their blood crying out from the earth.
Only when we all can stand without fear, admitting for all the world that this history is a living thing, a blood-soaked, hate-filled thing that hovers over all of us, embraces us, calls us to the easy way, to take the benefits offered without merit can we start to appropriate this part of King's dream. Only when those who still hold hate in their hearts admit to that hate, and are willing to pay a price to rid themselves of it, can I listen with anything like equanimity to those who prattle on about "content of their character".