Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream 50 years ago this month. "It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream," he said. For many, that dream has come true. For too many, it is still in Langston Hughes's words, "a dream deferred." King would applaud the progress, and he would still be at work for those who are yet in the nightmare. Indeed, he was marching with the garbage workers of Memphis when he was taken from us just five years after his majestic speech.
We have a tendency to honor his legacy by celebrating his words. We are correct, in part, to do so. He would not be surprised. "I'm going to get me some big words," he told his mother when he was six, and he started doing so early in life. At 14, he earned a prize for oratory, speaking about "The Negro and the Constitution." But we should remember him just as much, if not more, for what he made us see, not hear. The power of King's contribution to America was in forcing us to confront who we were by bringing the experience of segregation and the destruction of black hopes and lives into our visual not just our verbal fields.
From that perspective, the success of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom came every bit as much from seeing a quarter million people, black and white, marching peacefully and without incident, an image that surprised many white Americans who thought the demand for civil rights was inherently threatening and violent. The success came from seeing black leaders as reasonable people, with Abraham Lincoln sitting literally behind them, as well as it did from King's speech. From that perspective, the images of what Bull Connor's police, fire hoses, and dogs did to children in Birmingham just three months before did more for the cause of civil rights than the words in King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, which did not even get wide circulation until months after the national media had left that city.
It is easier for us to forget words than images. King knew that - and used it. It is why he used words to forge images of the dream. But he did not stop there. Those who would foster social justice today struggle to remember this lesson. The immigration debate seems bogged down in discussions of border security, green cards, amnesty, timeframes, and legislative provisions. But where are the faces and where is the heartache of those who live in the shadows. King personalized the pain of the black experience. The immigrant experience is strangely impersonal. We hear about but don't see it.
Similarly, the poor in America today are mostly hidden from view. They are still, in Michael Harrington's words, the "other America." Yet the debates about food stamps and Medicaid, statistics on poverty rates and class separation - do not bring the devastation of being poor to our emotions. We are sorry for them, but we are not angry on their behalf. We become anesthetized instead of agitated as politicians appeal to our reason and not our rage. Perhaps only in the case of abortion and gay marriage have those who oppose the former and applaud the latter succeeded in bringing their message home to our hearts through the force of the photograph.
Black progress in America since 1963 is celebrated by most of us, and there is much to celebrate. But too many black (as well as Hispanic) Americans are still without decent paying -or any - jobs. They are still the subject of subtle - and sometimes overt - prejudice. They are still discriminated against, and the fact that such discrimination is now illegal makes it no less devastatingly real. But we don't see this. The success for some has driven the images of this failure for others from our screens, photos, and eyes.
And again . . . the shootings at Newtown almost brought about changes in the laws governing firearm purchases. That they did not is due in part to the fact that those images faded from the visual field of too many. Mass shootings are horrible, but it may not be until images of senseless gun deaths are with us daily that the momentum for reasonable change pushes past the resistance. The Internet age has trained us to respond to the images it projects. When those images fade, our attention often fades with them.
George Washington said that "the people must feel before they will see." He was referring to the breakdown of governance under the Articles of Confederation, and his point was that until this hurt their hearts, their heads would not demand change.
As we celebrate King's words, let us not forget that it was the disconnect between those words and what Americans saw on their television screens and in their newspapers that gave those words their power. It was knowing, through seeing, that the words represented a dream not reality that lent moral force to the movement to change America.