Sharing the dream
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of an America free of discrimination rang forth from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and into the history books, a defining moment of the civil rights movement.
Here is a pdf transcript of the speech from the National Archives.
He dreamed of an America where his children would be judged, as the oft-quoted line says, not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
"Now is the time," King said in a lesser-known passage, "to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children."
We talked with five black Americans from all walks of life about whether King's dream has been fulfilled and asked them, "What is your dream?"
Their answers encompass everything from educational opportunity and economic inequality to personal responsibility and gender roles.
They agreed that progress has been made since King decried a people "crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination" and an America "For Whites Only." But they also said challenges remain — and we won't ever reach the mountaintop unless we work together.
"Sometimes people misunderstand this speech. It's not only about blacks. It's about everybody — the world, all of us together, coming together," said Christina Neaville, a teacher and coach at Urbana Middle School.
Here are the responses:
Jaime Roundtree is principal at Barkstall Elementary School in Champaign. He grew up in Chicago, sang with the hip-hop group "The Primeridian," earned a history degree at the University of Illinois, then returned for a master's in education after falling in love with teaching. He serves as a "bridge builder" with lower-income families as part of a district effort to equalize opportunities for all students. He and his wife, Lisa, have four children.
I dream of a time when education is synonymous with true opportunity and access for all, where a family's income does not predetermine the student's academic outcome.
Having grown up in a low-income community in Chicago, I recognize differences in privilege. I had privilege because my grandparents were university professors, so I had access and opportunity that a lot of my friends didn't. I was very fortunate to have the same experiences as them, which grounded me, but at the same time to come to the university and see that there are things outside the West Side of Chicago to dream of. A lot of kids don't know that. Sometimes the adults do, but the kids don't. You can't achieve what you don't know.
At my high school, I think I started with 450 kids in my class, and 150 graduated. It was mostly African-American and Latino, probably 60 percent low SES (socioeconomic status). I was one of maybe two or three African-American students in honors classes.
But then I spent summers on Martha's Vineyard with my grandparents. I went from this world to another world. I could see the differences. I made friends on Martha's Vineyard who are still friends with me now. Their parents are powerful game-players in law and education. They are like family to me, just like my friends who I grew up with.
I dream of a time when resources for social services and supports for our students and families abundantly meet their needs. I dream of a time we invest as much if not more in our education as we do in our military.
Both are very valuable and we need both. But we are not putting into our education what we are into other things. Right now everything we deal with is "How do we cut?" We don't have enough, but our expectations are being raised.
Kids come in kindergarten a year behind. They need socialization on how to sit. This is the start of the race. These kids are starting out behind, not in knowledge or desire or ability but in lack of resources. We can catch them up, but we just don't have enough.
It's easy to blame the family. But there's not one parent who doesn't want better for their kids. It's just, can they do it? Do the circumstances around them help them be able to do it, or sometimes deter them from being able to do it, whether it's life choices they've made or circumstances placed upon them?
I dream of a time when educators are compensated and valued in our community like doctors.
These are people who shape and mold our most precious commodity, our children. We're creating the society of our future. You're going to have a bunch of kids who can't, and a few kids who can. It's triage sometimes. You're on a beach and you've only got two medics and we've got 1,000 soldiers and we've got to figure out how many we can save.
The Rev. Tommie Reed is longtime pastor at Saints Synagogue Church of God in Christ in Danville, owner of Tommie Reed's Barbershop in Danville and a retired inspector at General Motors. He served as city alderman from 2004 to 2009 and still leads the prayer at Danville City Council meetings.
It kind of bothers me a little bit, because most of our youngsters, our young people, they really don't understand the sacrifice that was made by Dr. King. They read about it and all these wonderful people, blacks and whites, who gave their lives trying to bring about unity and rights for all mankind ... they read about the movement but they don't really understand the price that was paid for it.
We've made some tremendous strides. There's a lot of people today, when they see injustice done, they stand up and speak out against it. And it helps somewhat. It opens people's eyes to let the world know that everybody's not for all of this looking down on one another.
But we still have a long way to go.
We still have some folks who have that old mentality. You'll have that as long as men are on the Earth.
Children don't look at color. They play together, they have their differences, and they come right back together and go back to playing again. The older generation is still holding on to some of those old ways we used to have. If they would leave the children alone, that gap would be bridged, but we still have people who are teaching all this stuff, teaching racism, blacks and whites.
They are still looking at that 'Way back when...,' and we've got to get beyond that. All that racism and prejudice. We've got to get beyond that, blacks and whites.
I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. This dream is as much alive today as it was before, but we just continue to seize the moment and build on his legacy. We all have a part to play in the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream. It's not going to come overnight. It's something we have to continue to work on and strive for, working together.
My dream, like Dr. King, is that all men would come together, and we would all sup together, work together and live together as God ordained it from the beginning of time. God didn't look at race, color or creed. He looked at man as man, woman as woman.
Dwight Miller is owner of Dash Management, which operates 11 McDonald's restaurants in Champaign-Urbana and Decatur. He has an accounting degree from the University of Findlay in Ohio and worked as an accountant for five years. In 1979 he switched careers, working as a McDonald's trainee and rising through the ranks before becoming a franchisee with his wife, Alice. He was Parkland College Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012.
I think that the things Martin Luther King did gave people of my generation the opportunity to be able to provide for our family and have the opportunity to compete in the marketplace.
When it comes to black Americans, everybody has an equal opportunity. We have to recognize that the results won't always be equal. It's up to each of us as individuals to take advantage of whatever we have been given. I think that too often the government makes it too comfortable for us.
Back when I was a kid, my first job I was working for 75 cents an hour. I tell people, the fact that I was making 75 cents an hour gave me the motivation to be successful today. When I hear people talking about how the minimum wage should be these higher dollar figures ... there must be an incentive for people to grow, to do better. I told myself, "This is not what I want to be doing the rest of my life." Too often now they lean more toward the other side, where it gets to be so comfortable that they lose the motivation.
I was a terrible accountant, and I knew that. When I actually left my accounting position to work as a manager trainee at McDonald's, people in my department were laughing at me. Obviously today nobody's laughing.
Opportunity is out there, and we have to recognize it when we see it. What can I do to put myself in a position to take advantage of that? That may mean going back to school, it may mean moving to where the opportunity is. What it doesn't mean is the opportunity has to be right here where I'm standing.
My dream is that people would take personal responsibility for themselves. When I think about Martin Luther King, I think that he created an opportunity for us to take advantage of opportunity, to have better lives. I think I see as time goes by, we may not be doing as much to fulfill that as we were 20 to 30 years ago.
I look at the educational structure, especially in black America, and I look at the family structure. I think that there was more togetherness 40 years ago. And I see that starting to dwindle, and I think it's had a real negative effect, with kids not following through and going to college. I think for a school system to work you have to have parent involvement, and I think over the years that parent involvement has really become lax.
When I was a kid, my mother would go to all the PTA meetings. If I screwed up in school, that was a big deal. I have kids now, if they don't show up for work, their parents cover for them. What are you teaching your kids? It's OK not to work. Those kinds of signals we're sending out are not good, and I think it's having some negative effects for the youth today.
Christina Neaville is a sixth-grade math and language arts teacher at Urbana Middle School and coaches the eighth-grade boys basketball team. A Houston native, she graduated from Union University and played Division I basketball at the University of Texas at El Paso.
I think that there's definitely work to be done. All in all Dr. King's dream was for us to progress, and we definitely have made progress as a country.
One way that I feel like we have changed is that many people in this country now have a diverse group of friends, or just depend on one another. As a community we work together, as with Hurricane Katrina. I think that's a huge part of what he said as well — us coming together as brothers and sisters and working together. I think he would definitely have been proud to know that when our country reaches hard times, we do come together and help each other.
One of my favorite parts of his speech is "they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." That doesn't necessarily go for one race ... but for people in general, stereotypes. As a country we should be working toward breaking down stereotypes. I am a female coach of the boy's basketball team and I appreciate the community for accepting that.
At the same time I love how you can watch ESPN and "Sports Center" and see female reporters and female anchors. It shouldn't matter whether you're a woman talking about male basketball or female basketball, it's basketball nonetheless. That's definitely progress.
My dream for this community is just for families and teachers to teach children about the history of the country so that they realize their importance in this society, so that we all raise them to be positive role models in the community. Teaching the youth not to allow trials and tribulations to dictate their view of their future, but to work together to continue to strive for greatness in their lives, and to just never give up.
Sometimes people misunderstand this speech. It's not only about blacks. It's about everybody — the world, all of us together, coming together.
A lot of different races have struggled or have had challenges. As a teacher I see it all the time. We had a culture day, with families who are from different countries coming into the classroom to talk to students about stereotypes and preconceived notions. We talked about how it's great to have a diverse group of friends, about how as a country we are a melting pot and we all work together. And we learned, myself included, about other cultures. Sometimes that's all people need is to be educated. Allow all people to show you who they are, instead of assuming who they are.
Courtney Wax is a senior honors student at the High School of St. Thomas More in Champaign. She mentors freshmen, heads the Saber Pack spirit group and is captain of the volleyball and basketball teams. She plans to study business in college.
I think that Martin Luther King inspired a lot of us to move past all that discrimination, but obviously we still have problems. There's still a lot of ignorance, especially in this country, where people are just unaware of other cultures.
I think people condense groups into certain categories but actually don't know them specifically. To get through that, they can make personal connections with people from other diverse groups. When they do that, they realize that no groups of people are all are the same. It opens their eyes to know that each person is unique and equally capable of doing anything that they want.
I've gone to a Catholic school my whole life where there isn't much diversity. I've definitely experienced racial issues. Kids would come up to me in grade school and say, "I was wrong. I had ideas about people of certain races, and after getting to know you, I was proved wrong."
That's a big thing for our country. People had told them or they grew up having certain ideas about African-Americans, and they just haven't been around African-Americans enough. Certain perceptions made about us are just not true. But I think it's gotten better.
What is my dream today? For my kids, to not be judgmental and learn to first accept everyone until proven otherwise.
Whenever anyone asks me, "If you could sit down and have a conversation with anyone," I would say Martin Luther King. He didn't solve all the world's problems on his own, but he was an example, a leader, and inspired generations to come to follow what he preached. That's why I appreciate him so much. I want to have the same effect on other people, through my actions and what I do, to inspire people younger than me.
I want to inspire them to set goals for themselves and try to work hard in everything that they do. So if they want to be president or principal at a school or whatever they want to do, go for it. Because I know along the way people are going to try to hold them back or bring them down, especially if they are a minority. But they can do anything.