A Devastated Dream
On March 6, 1857, Dred Scott held on to a dream. Together with his wife Harriett, he stood before the highest court in the land awaiting a verdict that could change his life. Having been compelled to accompany his enslaver, John Emerson, to the so-called “free” states of Illinois and Wisconsin (then a district), he thought he would have an opportunity to taste that freedom for himself when Emerson died.
I imagine that Scott’s was a recurring dream that was probably birthed on the very soil on which Oakwood University currently sits. Born in Southampton County, Virginia, he had been taken to Huntsville by the Peter Blow family, who would later sell him to John Emerson when they relocated to St. Louis, Missouri.
Like most enslaved people, Dredd already knew he was free, but dreamed of living free. When Chief Justice Roger B. Taney read the Court’s “7 to 2” majority decision, Dred and Harriett Scott had to come to terms with the sad reality that their dream of freedom had been delayed by a slavish nightmare.
A Disappointed Dream
On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream. Addressing a crowd of a quarter million people who had gathered for the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” he challenged American hypocrisy. If this were indeed a nation built on the “self evident” truth that “all men are created equal,” why was justice such a scarce commodity? Why was the electorate closed to twenty million of America’s citizens?
As King so astutely noted, in the aftermath of the Plessey versus Ferguson decision, the courts been viciously vigilant in enforcing the “separate” but ruthlessly reluctant in emphasizing the “equal.” It was with this hypocrisy in mind that King bellowed his targeted call for freedom to “ring from every hill and molehill of Alabama.”
Those who have memorized the “I Have a Dream” speech have probably just mentally corrected this British man’s geographical memory. Wasn’t Mississippi the state from which freedom would ring from every “hill and molehill”? You’re correct if you are recalling the Washington speech. However, elements from this speech had been delivered some eighteen months earlier in the Ashby Auditorium at the then Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. It was here that King had first positioned the “hills” and “molehills” in Alabama.
Undoubtedly unaware of the eerie coincidence that he was standing where Scott had stood, King conjured the Dred Scott decision as a stanza in his historical litany of the fight for justice in segregated America. Like Scott, he believed that the system should be held accountable for the check it had issued to the negro people. As he stood on these sacred grounds, he symbolically relieved the baton from the tired hands of Dred and Harriet Scott. Their dream had been dampened with disappointment, but Dexter Avenue’s Doctor-Pastor was determined that the dream would not be destroyed.
A Determined Dream
As we celebrate another Black History Month, we are provided with another opportunity not just to remember the dreamers, but also to acknowledge the dream—not just to acknowledge the dream, but also to recognize that after all these years the dream is still a dream. As long as the judicial system protects the killers or Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, the dream is still a dream. As long as the political system is in the hands of gerrymandering proponents of the Southern Strategy, the dream is still a dream.
As long as the economic system fattens the coffers of the richest while draining the limited resources of the masses, the dream is still a dream. As long as the educational system is designed for the privileged; where too many in the inner cities and rural America fall through the cracks; where college education is designed to create a new generation of slaves who graduate shamefully burdened with massive student loans that will follow them to their graves; as long as this system is in place, the dream is still a dream.
So as we reach for Dr. King’s baton during this month of solemn commemoration, let us remember that the dream will not be realized until “justice flows down like water, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” As I close, please allow me to end this thought with a slight adaptation of the words Dr. King used to climax his peroratio at Oakwood University on March 2, 1962. Indeed, it is my prayer that all who assemble this evening will respond to the call as we work towards the day when “all of God’s children, Black, White and Latino; Jew, Gentile and Muslim; Catholic, Protestant and Non-Conformist; will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last!’”
As you dream with me, please never forget that “a tree is known by its fruit.”
Keith Augustus Burton directs the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6610