A Dream Deferred
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
16 January 2011 © Rev. Fred L Hammond
Langston Hughes poem was first published under the title “Harlem” in 1951. Sixty years ago. Oh how things have changed since then and yet, oh, how things have remained the same. In many ways, the dreams of people in America remain deferred.
When Langston Hughes wrote this poem, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not yet a household name. Brown vs the Board of Education had not yet been ruled on by the US Supreme Court. His dream for equality was not yet vocalized to the masses. Voting rights were denied. Jim Crow laws were in full force in the south and the slick-smile- to-the-face-and-quiet-stab-in–the-back racism was in the north. Dreams were deferred and they were drying up like a raisin in the sun and they were festering like a sore and they were crusting over like a syrupy sweet and sagging like a heavy load. They were about to explode.
Martin Luther King came on the scene and for the first time gave real hope and real promise to African Americans not only of freedom but freedom to achieve the American Dream; where their children would have opportunities of education, of employment, of a life that was unimaginable to their parents. After years of struggle laws were passed that removed the Jim Crow laws, restored voting rights, and desegregated schools. Affirmative Action was put into place to remove the institutional barriers to opportunities for African Americans and other minorities.
But something happened along the way. After King’s assassination, a new despair began to seep into our country. We began to see the destruction of many of the programs that lifted us out of the depression of the 1930’s. And the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest of us at its narrowest in 1968, the year of King’s assassination, doubled in width by 2009.[i]
Yet America’s productivity has grown during that same time period. The gains of productivity have gone towards corporate earnings and profits instead of the employees who labored. So who are the people who have suffered during this widening gap? The top 20% of Americans earn 50% of the income generated in America. The fastest growing income segment are those in the top .01% of Americans with 22% of the income generated in America[ii]. The bottom 20% of Americans earn 3.4% of the income generated. These individuals who are earning the least amount of income tend to be those without a high school diploma. They tend to be people who live in rural areas of the country[iii].
Edward Wolff of New York University when looking at net worth of people in America discovered that 20% of Americans own about 85% of the wealth and 40% of Americans own near zero percent and in fact have a negative net wealth[iv]. I don’t know about you, but I certainly fall into that 40% category.
Martin Luther King’s dream went beyond the abolishment of racism, he saw the abolishment of poverty. Towards the end of his life, life, poverty became an important piece of his message. He saw the programs against poverty that were in place in 1968 and their current versions 40 years later as being uncoordinated piecemeal efforts. Housing programs, educational reform, welfare assistance all being done in piece meal fashion and all fluctuate at the whims of legislative bodies. We saw what the well intended deregulated housing programs have wrought in 2008. It was thought that home ownership was one of the factors that would lift America out of poverty. The largest mortgage default in American history that nearly collapsed our economy continues at record rates as we enter the New Year.
Martin Luther King stated the simplest solution to abolish poverty would be a guaranteed income. He stated there are two groups of people in America who currently have a guaranteed income, the wealthiest with their security portfolios and the poor with their welfare assistance.
King wrote that John Kenneth Galbraith, considered one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, estimated that $20 billion a year would effect a guaranteed income, which Galbraith describes as “not much more than we will spend the next fiscal year to rescue freedom and democracy and religious liberty as these are defined by ‘experts’ in Vietnam.” If my calculations adjusting for inflation are correct, $125 Billion a year in 2010 dollars would effect a guaranteed income which is less than 1/3rd what the war in Afghanistan[v] is costing Americans and 16 % of what the alleged post war costs in Iraq are slated for this budget year.
King believed that such a guaranteed income needed to be placed in the median income of Americans, to place it at the floor level would only continue the stagnation that welfare recipients currently experience. He believed this guaranteed income needed to be dynamic and be adjusted annually with the productivity of the nation’s total income.
King wrote that a “a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his/her life are in his/her own hands, when [s]he has the assurance that [her]his income is stable and certain, and when [s]he knows that [s]he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.[vi]”
Today we see marriage in decline in the United States as people struggle to develop economic viability. The number of married couples dropped to a record low of 52 % in 2009 as compared to 57% in the year 2000. And this does not include those marriages that are staying together only because they cannot afford to divorce at this time[vii]. King is suggesting that couples esteem would increase if economic woes did not define who we are as human beings.
King writes: “The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.
“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.[viii]”
In a survey done by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely on income equity in the United States, they found “a large majority of every group … surveyed — from the poorest to the richest, from the most conservative to the most liberal — agreed that the current level of wealth inequality was too high and wanted a more equitable distribution of wealth. In fact, Americans reported wanting to live in a country that looks more like Sweden than the United States.”[ix]
The last time such huge disparity between the wealthy and the poor existed in America was during what was called the Gilded Age, the period towards the end of the 19th century. It was met with labor unrest and political agitation and it was toppled by the second worst depression in American history. The current time in our society is being called the second gilded age.
American Conservative magazine suggests: “In the course of the 20th century, there were several eras of growing economic inequality. On a few occasions, they came to an end in a relatively gentle way, with democratic elections and more egalitarian legislation. More often, however, they were ended by a catastrophe, such as the Great Depression, a violent social revolution, or a world war. When the rich went out, it seems, they normally did so with a bang, and not with a whimper. The way things are now going, it is likely to be so in the future[x].”
So here we have King’s dream of a society that has not only abolished racism but also abolished poverty. He believed it was not only doable but achievable in his lifetime. Forty years after his death, we appear to be further away from either part of his dream from being fulfilled. We have the gap between the wealthy and the poor growing to widths that were pre-cursers to some of the most heinous governments in our world’s history. We have scapegoated our economic woes on the backs of immigrants and Muslims.
I spoke with [a member] on Friday. I told her I was doing this sermon and wanted to know her thoughts about Martin Luther King. [She] said something to me that made me stand up and take notice. She said her mother used to ask why Martin Luther King couldn’t just write his words and not show up for these events. Her mother was aware of the physical danger King faced every time he made a public appearance somewhere. As we now know, it was his appearance for the sanitation workers strike in Memphis that culminated in his assassination. Why not just write and not show up.
Could King have had the same effect if he simply wrote his views and not shown up in Selma, not shown up in Birmingham, and not shown up in Montgomery? Would his “I Have a Dream” speech be remembered if he had not shown up to deliver it at the March on Washington but merely had it published in the Atlantic Monthly?
Dreams do not come true if we choose not to show up in our pursuit of them. If we stand back, nod our heads in agreement, but do not show up to place our words into living action, then what have we accomplished? It is easy to do arm chair justice. We can sign all the petitions on MoveOn.com or rant all we want about injustice on the Tuscaloosa News Forum but if we hide behind the comfort of our screen name, what have we really accomplished? We remain unseen. We remain voiceless. We remain without strength to make a difference.
Now I do not know if King’s economic justice dream of guaranteed income can be easily applied given our current political tension. There will be shouts of socialism or worse. It could be seen as reparations for slavery even though it would benefit everyone. But imagine knowing that regardless of the work you are doing, you would receive at least a base pay of say $40,000. Additional salary would be based on the performance of the company producing whatever it is they produce. For some of us that amount of salary would answer many problems.
But this sort of dream can never come true if people do not show up to advocate for it. The majority of people in America want some form of equalization of income, so says the survey. The survey indicates the ideal they want is Sweden. According to the CIA Fact book, “Sweden has achieved an enviable standard of living under a mixed system of high-tech capitalism and extensive welfare benefits. It has a modern distribution system, excellent internal and external communications, and a skilled labor force.[xi]” Sweden does not have a poverty level ranking in the CIA Fact book; it is listed as not applicable.
We are called to show up in the pursuit of our dreams, in the pursuit of a just and equitable world. Mahatma Gandhi is oft quoted as saying, “be the change you want to see in the world.” In President Obama’s closing words at the memorial for those who were killed in Tucson last week, he said, “I want us to live up to [Christina Taylor Green’s] expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.[xii]” If we seek to do that we will be fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream for all of us. Blessed Be.
[iii] This information is based on this report: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec10/income_09-28.html
[vi] Martin Luther King “Where do we go from here?” as found in the text The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington.
[viii] Martin Luther King “Where do we go from here?” as found in the text The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington.
[x] as found at : http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06132008/profile2.html