On May 25th, 46-year-old George Floyd died needlessly beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, and our country has been in visible turmoil ever since, underneath which an invisible turmoil has existed since our founding. Two days after the protests began in Dallas, a friend and colleague remarked that we haven’t seen such widespread, prolonged outrage since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968. If so, then we are experiencing another critical moment in race relations, this time one that we cannot afford to let pass unresolved. We should have at hand as we go forward the invaluable archive of Dr. King’s words, including his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Many over the past decade and more have chosen to refer to it rarely because its very eloquence appears to deflect attention away from the kind of harsh realities we are witnessing today. Yet perhaps this still-unfolding moment in our history is the right time to revisit one of its memorable images.
The next words of Dr. King’s speech could have been spoken on any day since then, including tomorrow: “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
How timely for us that Dr. King here conflates economic prosperity and racial justice in the kind of analogy of which he was a master. At every point the analogy works powerfully, because we all—black and white, rich and poor—understand deep within that the very foundation of both our material and our spiritual well-being must be built on what William Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” We all understand that the deeply human aspirations of prosperity and justice are intertwined. “No justice, no peace.”
In that same year, 1963, James Baldwin wrote “The Fire Next Time,” in which he made a prediction by way of another analogy: “A bill is coming in that I fear America is not prepared to pay.” He quotes W.E.B. Dubois, who said in 1903 that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Baldwin called it “a fearful and delicate problem, which compromises, when it does not corrupt, all the American efforts to build a better world—here, there, or anywhere. It is for this reason that everything white Americans think they believe in must now be reexamined.”
If, as so many of us are saying more than half a century later, this fearful time is both a crisis and an opportunity, how should we seize it—how do we go forward in order “to build a better world”? Like so many other organizations, the Dallas Institute will ask in the coming weeks and months what and how it can contribute during these fraught days. We invite you to join us.