Dear Dr. King,
Every year on this day we celebrate your birthday. But we also manage to celebrate ourselves in a way. We take a few moments to pat ourselves on the backs and smile at the progress we've made so far. We publish heartfelt quotes from school children about how they strive to model their young lives on your short but powerful one. And we tell ourselves that while we have a long journey ahead, the worst is behind us. Well, Dr. King, I'd like to give you something a little different than the warm fuzzies this year for your birthday. I'd like to give you an apology.
I'm apologizing to you, Dr. King, because we have all oversimplified your message, and we have all missed your main point. Since your death, we have counted the meanest victories for freedom, justice, and equality as progress -- a black CEO, a black Supreme Court Justice, a black Senator, a black President. We have given ourselves credit for killing racism, when we can see it silently settling in public housing projects and public assistance offices around the country. We've told ourselves that the tragedy that befell you couldn't happen today, while we see our President's faith, birth, and integrity questioned because of the color of his skin. But our biggest failure has been our failure to understand that your message wasn't one of the polite and patient incremental progress of justice we have lived out -- it was one of revolution.
When, over 40 years ago, you announced to the world that you had a dream, it was not a dream of new individual accomplishments, but one of systemic community change. You dreamed of a world where the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners could sit down to the table of brotherhood together. Instead, we have given you a world where slavery still exists and has spread to enslave people of every race, religion, and country of origin. You dreamed of a world where little black boys and girls and little white boys and girls could join hands together. We've given you a world where girls, and especially black girls, are being sold into prostitution as children. You dreamed of a world where your children could be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. We've given you a world with a black man leading the most powerful country, yes, but where racism and the slavery which thrives on racism still pours through the thin levies we have put up against it. We have given you a few laudable individual accomplishments, but not the real change you asked for.
Last night, while the people of Haiti, descended from African slaves, starved and wailed and died, American celebrities held the Golden Globes award ceremony. In solidarity with Haiti, they wore ribbons. But if everyone in that room had made that ribbon their only piece of jewelry -- had taken off their diamonds and watches and put them in a collection plate for Haiti -- such wealth could feed thousands for months. But the Haitian people couldn't eat those ribbons, Dr. King, nor use them to rebuild their city. And no one seemed to get that. It was not just those celebrities last night who failed you, but all of us who have refused to give up something for the cause of justice. I'm sorry.
I hope you have not given up on us, Dr. King. I believe we can strive to model our lives on your philosophy, with more than just teens' quotes and individual victories and warm fuzzy feelings. I believe we can do the hard parts -- sacrifice, work hard, fight for justice. And I hope next year I have a better birthday gift to offer: the beginning of the end of modern-day slavery and the continued unfolding of your dream.