Days of future passed

I had a crazy idea the day the Democratic Party formally nominated Barack Obama for president. What I wanted to do was get on a plane and fly, not to Denver, but to Atlanta.

I wanted to go to the tomb of Martin Luther King Jr., and talk to him, on the anniversary of the day he stood on the Lincoln Memorial and talked to us, so that we began opening our eyes.

"Do you see, Martin, how far we have come?"

Everyone knows what he said in Memphis the night before the loser with the cheap rifle blew him away: "I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, we will get to the Promised Land."

But I have always wondered if thoughts of failure flickered through Dr. King's mind as he lay there, sprawled on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, much of his jawbone blown away, dying, his life's blood ebbing onto the cement. Men, especially great ones, tend to feel they are a failure when they are dying.

I wonder if he thought it might have been all for nothing in the end. So I wanted to conjure him up in front of me for just half an hour, so that I could have tried to find the words to thank him.

More than likely he isn't anywhere, because he isn't. Or maybe he knows about all this already, in which case I could ask why he apparently committed plagiarism on his doctoral thesis.

But if he appeared in front of me, not knowing a thing that had happened since April 4, 1968, I might have said something like this:

Martin, you won't believe this, but there was another young black man who made a speech that mattered exactly 45 years to the day after you gave that "I Have a Dream" speech.

You remember, the famous one on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And about 1,000 times more people saw his than saw yours while they were happening, I have to say. But the thing of it is, well, Martin, your speech was still a little better than his.

That's saying a lot; this guy is one hell of an orator. Yet Martin, I have to say his first line was one you could not only never have said; you couldn't have imagined saying, or imagined any Negro (as black folks called themselves then) saying:

"With profound gratitude and great humility, I accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States."

He said those words to the Democratic National Convention, Martin. And you know what else? He is ahead in the polls.

Most people think he is going to win.

Think of that! None of this would have happened — not yet, anyway, if it hadn't been for that speech you made and all you did.

Not just you, of course, all the others, some of whom lie in named and nameless graves. But you gave them, and us, voice.

Then, if he actually existed in bodily form, I would stop, and hand Martin Luther King the Detroit News and Free Press of Aug. 29, 2008, with their huge pictures of the nominee and the headlines:

"Obama: Time to Change America" and "Together, Our Dreams Can Be One" If you are younger than 50 or so, you can have no real idea how amazing this all is. Barely 40 years ago, black people were still risking their necks to vote in many parts of this country.

Dr. King was shot because he was in Memphis to help settle a garbage workers' strike. The nearly all-black workforce's basic demand was reflected in the simple signs they carried: "I AM A MAN," they said simply, to a city and county administration that treated them like something less than animals.

That's what life was like for African-Americans then. But in many places, and in many ways, things are far from perfect now.

When Martin Luther King Jr. got over being overwhelmed by what happened this year, he would — based on everything I know about him — have reproved me for giving him too much credit.

He would probably have said some version of what Winston Churchill said, when World War II ended and he was praised for having had the guts to stand up to the Nazis when nobody else would.

"The nation had the lion's heart. I only had the luck to give the roar," he liked to say with that famous grin.

Yet I imagine once Martin Luther King Jr. had a couple hours with those Detroit papers or in a good library, he would be stunned in other ways not so positive. And if he weren't shocked, given that he knew something about human nature, he certainly would be appalled.

Surely he would have been appalled that for so many black Americans, life is still wretched. That the schools may not be segregated de jure, but they sure the hell are de facto.

"We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one," he said in that famous speech. Yeah, well, that has sure changed a lot.

My guess is that what might bother Dr. King most today would have been the quality of some — some — of the nation's black leadership ... which is why I would have given him the Detroit papers.

He might never have imagined Barack Obama could have come this far. But neither did he expect to take on Southern sheriffs and risk lynching to make the world safe for the Kwame Kilpatricks.

But things never happen the way we think they will.

Life, as John Lennon sagely said, is what happens while you are making plans. Yet, as Galileo supposedly whispered under his breath, defying his oppressors: And yet, the earth moves. It surely does.

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of those who gave it a mighty shove. Last week, Barack Obama offered to give it another.

Whatever happens now, one huge thing has already been accomplished. No longer can any child say he couldn't possibly reach his dreams because of the color of his skin.

Some would say that now applies to women too, since Hillary Clinton won 18 million votes, causing John McCain to cynically stick a totally unqualified woman on his ticket as vice president.

We don't know yet what will happen in November. But you know what I, aging old white guy, think would make Martin Luther King Jr. proudest? That while Barack Obama paid homage to him last night, he made it clear he is not running as a black man.

He is running for president as a supremely qualified American who happens to be black. Martin dreamed, at the end there, of an America "where his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character."

And as they used to say in his church on Dexter Avenue: We aren't what we should be. We aren't what we ought to be.

But we're sure a lot better than we were.

How much better, we should know on Nov. 5.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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