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Dreaming in Color: King's Subversive Vision for Racial Justice

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

King taught America to dream differently. King’s dream radically challenged and critiqued the prevailing notion of the American dream.

In a society deeply segregated between black and white, King taught us to dream in color. He did not advocate for colorblindness, which ends up making us blind to racial injustice and cultural difference. King forced America to see color by lifting up the black struggle until white America could no longer ignore it. He did this through strategic and nonviolent protest but also by inserting a new dream, a new narrative into the collective consciousness of a nation.

King’s dream was subversive, to white segregationists and black nationalists alike, because it refused to accept a monochromatic rendering of reality. King’s dream was both an emancipation proclamation from the enculturated consciousness of white supremacy and an invitation for transformation for all Americans.

King’s dream was inclusive. He intentionally integrated those who were different than him into a shared future vision of hope. He could have excluded whites who had fought him at every turn. After all, he did have reason to be leery of white folks. He had received numerous death threats in Alabama, he’d been hit by a rock by a white mob in Chicago, and was stabbed when he was in New York. But, he continued to dream of a world where people from different cultures and religious backgrounds could live together in peace.

King’s dream invites us to reconsider our segregated, monochromatic, and color-neutral dreams in favor of something bolder, fuller, and more colorful. Dreams that redraw boundary lines to include our enemies. Dreams that bring those on the margins back into the center of community. Dreams that disrupt deeply entrenched culturally conditioned ways of thinking to create what King called “the beloved community."

The revolutionary nature of King’s dream prevents us from coopting King for any and every political cause (most recently, Obama cited Dr. King’s quote about “unarmed truth having the final word” in the same State of the Union speech where he boasted in America’s military might, a topic King adamantly opposed). During Ferguson and Baltimore protests I heard many from the religious community urging for peaceful protests in line with the nonviolence of Dr. King without highlighting his strong racial, political and economic critique that accompanied it. This sentimentalizing and sanitizing of Dr. King by progressives and conservatives might make King more palatable to the cultural majority, but it does the legacy of Dr. King a huge disservice.

We have to remember Dr. King was doing more than encouraging us all to dream in some vague way. King’s dream is not a generic call to pursue personal aspirations. King's dream calls us to question current unjust social arrangements and to cultivate concern for all people, not just our own family, culture, and country.

King's witness challenges us to dream beyond ourselves. Dr. King reframed the notion of dreaming in terms of collective impact. King said, “A man has not started to live until he rises above his narrow individual interests to the broader concerns of humanity.” He said life's most pressing question is "What are you doing for others."

Dreaming in color means leveraging our voices and gifts to challenge the status quo, create community across dividing lines, and extend our vision beyond our own narrow interests to the common good. King said, “The true neighbor risks position, prestige, and even his own life for the welfare of others.” I believe only when we are willing to do this can we say we are living out King’s dream.

Do you dream in color?

Do your dreams subvert the status quo and disrupt unjust social arrangements?

Do your dreams create new communities of inclusion and bring those on the margins into the center?

Do your dreams invite and include your enemies?

Do your dreams extend beyond your own narrow interests to benefit the broader concerns of humanity?


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