Commentary: It's Time to Dream Bigger

Think about what you want your country to look like 50 years from now at the 100th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Posted: 08/24/2013 10:15 AM EDT
March on Washington

As anniversaries approach, we generally tend to look backward and remember the past. But today, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, I'd like to look forward and consider the future.

In his famous Letter From A Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned America about a phenomenon he called "a tragic misconception of time." He cautioned us to avoid the "strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills." The truth, Dr. King told us, is more complicated. "Time itself is neutral," he explained. "It can be used either destructively or constructively."

With that in mind, as we commemorate the March on Washington, I want to reconsider the way we use our time. Many will use this occasion to speculate what Dr. King would think about the past five decades. This is fitting and appropriate, but I also want to encourage us to apply Dr. King's principles to the next 50 years. To truly honor Dr. King, we must acknowledge that he was never so engaged in commemorating the past as he was in creating the future.

The changes that took place during the civil rights era did not happen by accident. Nor did they occur because people with privilege suddenly and willingly surrendered their privilege. Instead, change took place because people of conscience used their time to create that change. Thus, if we are to follow in their footsteps, it seems we must abandon the fantasy that the world will become more progressive on its own. The future depends not so much on the mere passage of time but on the active engagement of the people.

Think about this. What do you want your country to look like 50 years from now at the 100th anniversary of the March on Washington? Now consider these two different visions of the future.

In one vision of 2063, we're still engaged in the same tired old debates that take place today. President Obama was the first and only Black president and no women have been elected to the White House. Black unemployment continues its persistent path high above white unemployment and the government is unwilling to invest in job training or policies that put people to work and rebuild our infrastructure. Millions of Americans still remain without health care coverage after opponents of Obamacare finally succeeded in repealing the Affordable Care Act in 2015.

Our schools are still crumbling, while gentrification and income inequality have made housing completely unaffordable in many of the nation's cities. Black and Latino young men are still being locked up in our ever swelling prisons at shocking rates. People of color, immigrants, LGBT Americans, and poor people are still being demonized and blamed for the nation's problems.

But there's another vision of 2063. In that vision, women make up a majority of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. Voters are able to cast their ballots in polling places without intimidation or electronically without ever walking into a polling booth. High speed rail trains shuttle passengers from city to city and motorists drive over beautiful new bridges and safe new highways. We've developed a vaccine for HIV, ended the AIDS epidemic and finally cured cancer. The minimum wage has become a living wage that rises with the cost of living. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 has led to an expanded health care law that now covers everyone.

And there's more. We've not only eliminated the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, we've ended the misguided war on drugs and promoted drug rehabilitation instead of incarceration. We've abolished "three-strikes" laws, abandoned mandatory minimums, outlawed racial profiling, limited when police can stop-and-frisk, and repealed Stand Your Ground Laws through the Trayvon Martin Act of 2021. We've also required background checks for anyone who buys a gun, and we've restricted access to assault weapons, armor-piercing bullets, and high capacity magazine clips.

Gay and lesbian couples are free to marry in all 50 states, the Employment Non Discrimination Act bars unequal treatment based on sexual orientation, and new laws prohibit gender identity discrimination as well. And finally, our immigration policy no longer discriminates against people of color.

None of this is guaranteed, of course, and it's just as possible we could end up living in the alternative universe I described earlier. The world we occupy in August 2063 depends on the movement of the people, not on the movement of the hands of the clock.

"Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability," Dr. King wrote. It comes through "tireless efforts" of those who are willing to work for it, he argued. "Without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation."

So as we look back at the March that changed history, we must also look forward to new history yet to be written. Our ancestors left us a powerful legacy and a beautiful dream. But now it's time to dream bigger.



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