Young speaker at first event reflects on King's dream
In 2002, as part of the first countywide celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., then-13-year-old Kris Coombs Jr. told those in attendance:
"In case you don't recognize the future, here I stand. We want to seize the dream and put it into action."
We tracked Coombs down and asked about his life since then: "We have since moved to Columbus, OH, then I went to Tufts University outside of Boston, MA where I completed my BA in Political Science and Peace & Justice Studies and received an MA in Child Development and an MA in Educational Studies. I am now currently teaching English in Santiago, Chile with plans to attend law school in the near future. My brother is graduating from Hampton University in Hampton Roads, VA this May with a degree in Political Science." We also asked him how he felt about what he'd said that day, nearly half his life ago. He sent the following reflection:
Now, I think it is by no means an unfortunate coincidence that, on the front page of the newspaper, we see, on the one hand, an event focused on a call for peace side-by-side with reports of a foiled terrorist attack and the equivalent of "wanted" ads for 5 suspected terrorists. The painfully sad truth is that in both cases, we, as a country, have no one to blame for the lack of peace but ourselves. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have believed in non-violence, but his true "dream" was so much more than the passive, hand-holding, marching down the street Civil Rights Leader that is overwhelmingly taught in schools and who remains firmly lodged in our public and institutional memory.
Let me be very, very clear in saying that he was a revolutionary who called for revolutionary change. This becomes almost painfully obvious towards the last 5-8 years of his life (which was tragically cut far too short) as he began to speak out directly against U.S. policies of education, transportation, food security, housing, and international intervention in the name of "democracy," a label we only applied to other countries when their leaders allowed for the U.S. to invest in, manipulate, and ultimately control any resources — natural, political, or economic — that the country provided. From Nicaragua to El Salvador to Chile to Indonesia to Vietnam to Uzbekistan to Iraq, the United States has hypocritically supported regimes committing terrorist attacks and committed several of its own on other countries, yet we generally refuse to see them as such.
Additionally, in our history, we have abused and used natural and human resources in our economic development, but now that we realized that we were "wrong" to do so (and indeed, many were truly horrific and damaging and remain so to this day), we create international declarations banning the use of such processes that specifically target developing countries without providing the equivalent capital to aid in their development if they used such terrible methods. It should be noted that much of those countries' lack of development is also directly hindered by a history of colonialism and abuse from more powerful countries who pilfered the resources they had without a thought to sustainability or the socioeconomic/political stability of the country, acts that are easy to do when you view the people who live in those places as little more than barbarians, hardly qualifying as "human" (in the sense derived from the Enlightenment) or as having any intrinsic value in the world.
But we needn't even look beyond our own borders to get a sense of what Rev. Dr. King Jr. was really talking about. His dream, and the dream of so many other Civil Rights leaders both before his time and to this day, that we consistently fail to achieve is the complete annihilation of the socially reproductive process that, generation after generation, not only places people in abject poverty — slowly starving them day-in and day-out of time, energy, a sense of self-worth, and obliterating any sense of fairness or justice in the world — but completely normalizes the mechanisms of marginalization, dehumanization, and downright oppression necessary to achieve such levels of utter, national and global destitution. Additionally, I cannot stress enough how much beyond race these concepts go, from socioeconomic status to class to gender identity to views on faith and spirituality (among so many more) — no progress can happen if we are unable to tackle these issues not as solitary, stand-alone issues or as smaller parts of a larger problem, but as constantly intersecting, malleable, constantly shifting social phenomena that cannot be completely isolated.
In order to seize the dream, we must first fully understand the dream and our place in it, yet we, as a country, seem hell-bent on doing the exact opposite. We persist in viewing so many of our problems at surface levels, fixated on "equality" for our future and ignoring that in order to achieve this, we need equity based on restitution of the wrongs in our past. We seek to simply try to re-write or replace laws rather than scrutinize the psychosocial and ideological mechanisms that fueled their creation in the first place. We would rather stick to our guns (sometimes, quite literally) and make personal and political choices based solely on our own beliefs and opinions rather than embrace the rigorously conducted, incredibly persuasive, and absolutely brilliant work being done across the social sciences that overwhelmingly highlight the need to scrutinize and dismantle some of the very institutions we hold so dear that maintain widespread inequality as the status quo.
There's a reason Rev. Dr. King Jr. was on federal watch-lists. There's a reason he was so outspoken against the U.S. government. There's a reason he was "accused" of being a communist or a socialist. That reason is because his dream was not just that people would learn to love one another to get through the day, to accomplish their business as usual, to keep wheels of society rolling. No, his dream was that people would hold so much love for one other that they would do everything in their power, no matter the cost or the sacrifice, to ensure that everyone else had it as good as they did.
In short, his dream wasn't to improve interpersonal and social relations to better sustain our current existence. His dream was to invigorate our spirits to revolutionize our world and create a new reality.
So in this sense, asking if *I* have achieved the dream is, in many ways, to miss the point of the dream. If you are asking if I have achieved "The Dream" as American History and public/institutional memory would have you define it, then sure, I could fit that bill: an American male of Color who has not only gone to college but attained advanced degrees and is living abroad with no criminal history? That's a dream for many people, and was my family's dream for me. But that bill is a fictitious bill, ignoring far too many circumstantial factors and advantages gained in my family history that privileged me far above other male youth of Color; and it most certainly flies in the face of the essence of Rev. Dr. King Jr.'s true dream. You see, the dream can only be achieved if we all get there together. It's not for a few people to gain for every few thousand who try — in this way, Rev. Dr. King, Jr.'s dream has been made to fit into the mold of the American dream, which touts individual exceptions as the definition of a general rule that otherwise operates through systems of relentless oppression that govern the lives of millions in this country and billions around the world.
I've read many quotes about the relationship of change and progress, and while I cannot remember the source of this (approximate) quote at the moment (and a quick Google didn't find it either), it very succinctly surmises how I feel: "In the past several years, we've made a lot of change, but absolutely no progress." Until we shake ourselves to the core and challenge our social norms around who and what has value in society — and analyze our resistance to change — we will likely continue along such a path. With rapidly changing urban demographics, massive cuts to public education that is still operating on a system devised for the Industrial Revolution, lack of job opportunities and access to the resources needed to acquire them, then the glacial pace of progress in which we currently operate will be drastically outsped by the inequities such "solutions" (re)create.
Yes, a lot has changed, and in the public eye, for the better. But "better" is always relative, and Rev. Dr. King Jr.'s dream was to leave no person behind. It is precisely because we, as a nation, continue to find reasons to turn blind eyes to the struggles and challenges facing those who have been most used and abused and who now need us more than ever that whatever "progress" we make will continue to be overshadowed by our consistent failure to attend to our own attachments to the permissive society that generates and perpetuates such systemic subjugation, and that will continue to destroy not only the lives of others, but eventually, of ourselves.