My favorite part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech comes long before he enunciates his now-famous dream. It comes before he leaves behind the prepared speech.
In this early part of the speech, Dr. King speaks of the nation’s bank of justice. Of his refusal to believe that it is bankrupt. And then he speaks of the gathered masses mission:
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. NOw is the time 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 quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
“Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” (1)
The urgency of now. Of the moment. Though those moments were now more than five and a half decades ago (more than half a century for those who are counting), the urgency is no less today.
While the country has become unsegregated, we have not found our way fully onto the sunlit path Dr. King speaks of. Systemic racism and racial injustice are still rampant throughout our country. Today, it is still true that:
- Black people are imprisoned at more than 5 times the rate of whites. (2)
- Black children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are sent to criminal court. (2)
- The wage gap between black men and white men has grown since 2000 when black men earned 73% of what white men earned. In 2017, they earned 69% for doing the same job. (3)
That’s not to say that we haven’t made progress. But it’s become clear that the country has chosen the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” We convinced ourselves that ending segregation was enough, without working to eradicate the seeds of systemic racism. Today there are many who are blind to the racism running rampant in many of our systems, having convinced themselves that racism no longer exists simply because they, “have a black friend,” or, “have black coworkers.” Yet it’s been found that three-quarters of white people don’t have any nonwhite friends (4), and citing that one person of color they know is often a tactic employed by racists (5).
It’s time for this country to embrace the urgency of now. We cannot claim the unity implied in our national identity so long as we continue to divide ourselves along racial and ethnic lines.
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
- Text of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, taken from the national archives.
- NAACP criminal justice fact sheet.
- Economic Policy Institue
- Washington Post
- Psychology Today
Jenn Bentley is a writer and editor originally from Cadiz, Kentucky. Her writing has been featured in publications such as The Examiner, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, and others. When she’s not writing or editing, Jenn spends her time raising money for Extra Life and advocating for autism awareness.