It’s as predictable as the seasons — every year, when I hear the excerpts from Martin Luther King’s historic speech on the radio at this time of year, it brings tears to my eyes. I just watched the speech on CNN again and this year was no exception.
But today the words come across in a whole new light. It still seems, indeed, like a dream that a mere 46 years after Dr. King’s sublime speech (a period of time that seems shorter and shorter as I get older), the hugely diverse, cantankerous, politically divided, myopic, maddening, yet inspiring population of this country have come together to elect an African-American President of the United States. A mere four decades after black people in this country could be routinely denied entrance to a hotel or restaurant or even a bathroom with no explanation and noone much noticing, a black man is moving into the Oval Office of the White House. And freedom is, at last, ringing from every hill and mole-hill in Mississippi.
Even these months after the election, it seems surreal — a dream — that this could happen. It seemed inconceivable even 3 or 4 years ago that this could happen at this stage in history. Yet here we are.
Martin Luther King’s dream, a dream that he gave his life for, brought this country through a dangerous and tumultuous period in our history, with remarkably little bloodshed. It made possible, in no small part, what we will witness at the historic inauguration tomorrow, a mere four decades later. Much has been said about this literally world-changing event, and there is undoubtedly much more to be said.
But it occurs to me that there is a larger lesson here for Natural Patriotism. It is about, if I might blatantly steal the phrase, “the audacity of hope”. Four decades ago it seemed impossible that black children could one day hold hands with white children in America, much less grow up to be President. It has come to pass. We faced the seemingly impossible challenge of getting past the bitter, divisive history of four centuries of slavery and brutality to forge a nation of unity from diversity. Though we have a way to go, it has come to pass. The American way of life was built, in significant part, on exploitation of African-American people. Yet we are leaving that behind. The American people rose to the challenge.
Now we face the seemingly impossible challenge of another fundamental transformation. The American way of life (and increasingly that of most other countries in the world) is similarly built on exploitation of Nature. This, similarly, is a situation that the nation cannot ultimately survive. It seems, similarly, impossible to move beyond. But perhaps the most important lesson of the momentous transition we are now witnessing is this: Yes, we can.
We can reach the mountain. We will not all make it, and the going will be difficult, but we can get there. We can find a way to live happily on this earth, the only home we will ever have, into the distant future. We can move beyond an economy based on fossil fuel and extravagant consumption and extravagant waste. We can move beyond the ignorance and hostility to an idea whose time has come. Yes, we can.
As in 1963, we know where we have to go, and we even know how to get there. The challenge is locking arms together and making the long difficult trek. We have the ideas, we have the know-how, and we are at long last beginning to see the political will.
Even a few years ago, it seemed impossible that we could face the realities that oil is running out, that burning it is cooking our planet, and that our ravenous appetites are literally suicidal. But we are beginning, after a long darkness, to see light on the horizon. And I feel that I can allow myself to believe that we will make it. I have a dream.