Making their dreams reality still a work in progress

February 21, 2005|By Kenneth Lavon Johnson

A FEW WEEKS AGO, we celebrated the birth and life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and it was quite fitting and proper that we did so. This month, as we celebrate black history, we should remember that his dream was of an America that would be a place of peace, brotherhood, opportunity and justice for all of its people.

The dream that he spoke of was the same dream that a long list of black heroes who went before him had dreamed. Their dreams were born of the nightmare of racial oppression, snarling police dogs, beatings, jailings and lynchings. This state-sponsored and sanctioned terrorism, known as racial segregation, was no doubt the genesis of their dreams.

I was fortunate to have met Dr. King and to have been tutored in the law by another great dreamer, Justice Thurgood Marshall. They inspired me and a generation of black youths who longed to be free, not only to dream the dream but to march, without fear or pause, toward making their dream our reality.

All of the black heroic dreamers whose lives we celebrate this month were most certainly mindful of the biblical admonition that is found in James 2:26: "For as the body without spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." They had faith in their dreams and worked toward making them come true.

Their dreams have not become a reality. Because of the gains made by the civil rights movement, state-sponsored terrorism no longer exists. But we still face the evils of racism, classism, sexism, anti-Semitism and the suffering of the poor.

About 45 million Americans have no health insurance and live near the poverty line, a substantial number of whom are black. The much touted, but never waged, "war on drugs" is not now discussed. But the laws and policies stemming from that war resulted in a disproportionate number of young black men being jailed, largely contributing to the breakdown of the black family. Where are the voices of outrage and calls to action of the black middle-class leaders?

We are also witnessing a widening disconnect between the black underclass and the black middle class that is hindering the underclass from making upward strides. Children born into the middle class will only know that class unless they are taught about the suffering of the underclass. Children born into the underclass will only know that class unless the middle class teaches them the upward route.

There can be no question as to whether the self-destructive pattern of bad behavior of the black underclass is directly related to its plight. Members of the black middle class taught me and others in the black underclass to work hard, to respect ourselves, our elders and one another, to avoid encounters with the law and to stay in school. They knew, and we believed, that if we did those things, we could minimize the effects of racism and overcome the poverty it had imposed upon us. When will the black middle class reconnect with the black underclass and teach them the upward route?

As we celebrate Black History Month, let us all remember the dreamers who preceded us by taking a stand against the evils that still exist in our society and work to make the dream of a better America come true.

Kenneth Lavon Johnson is a retired judge of the Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Columnist Cynthia Tucker will return next Monday.

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