I first wrote the following commentary in January 2011 for the now-defunct Option-Magazine.com. At the time, America had a Black president. We were cautiously optimistic. Each year thereafter, until 2014, I re-posted slightly updated versions of the piece at Creative Loafing in Charlotte, North Carolina. Since then, I’ve continued posting it here at DailyKemp.com — updating numbers, adding new names, and including new instances of threats. I plan to keep updating this piece and linking it on social media until Dr. King’s dreams (plural, because he didn’t just have one) become reality. At this point, I suspect I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life.
“Went up on the mountain
To see what I could see . . .”
— Gregg Allman, “Dreams”
When I was a kid growing up in the small mill town of Asheboro, North Carolina, I fell deeply and passionately in love with the Allman Brothers Band. In my 2004 book, Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race and New Beginnings in a New South, I describe exactly how and why I — a young white Southern kid coming of age in the early ’70s — came to identify with this group of blues-based rockers from Macon, Georgia:
The Allmans dressed in flannels and jeans, like I did. The singer, Gregg Allman, crooned with a melancholy I’d never before heard from someone who shared my reality. It was as though he were speaking directly to me. In the band’s 1969 psychedelic-gospel dirge “Dreams,” Allman moaned the words “I went up on the mountain / To see what I could see / The whole world was falling / Right down in front of me.” I was only eleven years old the first time I heard that song, but I felt I knew what Gregg Allman was talking about. In the years following desegregation, the mood of the South was chaotic. Times were changing. Wrong seemed right and right seemed wrong. The Allmans embraced that chaos, combining country, blues, jazz, and gospel into an otherworldly musical stew that allowed me to feel conflicting emotions: sadness, joy, sorrow, pride. Between 1969 and 1973, the Allmans sang of what it felt like to be saddled with pain (“Dreams,” “It’s Not My Cross to Bear”); they sang of redemption (“Revival”); and they sang of falling in love with (and within) the awesome beauty of the rural South (“Blue Sky,” “Southbound”).
What I didn’t say in that paragraph is that I’d often lie back on my bed, stare at the ceiling, and listen to the Allmans’ “Dreams” on my record player over and over and over. Each time it ended, I’d get up and put the needle back at the beginning of the song. I was obsessed with the uncomfortable longing for something that’s never clearly stated in the lyrics.
“Dreams” had everything I looked to music for: a deep and mournful melody, passionate improvisation, expressions of hurt that don’t come with easy solutions like “Let It Be” or “All You Need is Love,” two Beatles songs from the same period.
Gregg Allman expressed a hunger for dreams he’d never see. Never. That, to me, was big.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also spoke of dreams he’d never see. And this week, as we celebrate King’s birthday, his life and his legacy, the Allmans’ “Dreams” remains as powerful and relevant to me as it did when I was that little boy in Asheboro.
When we think of Dr. King’s “dream” today, do we think only of the dazzling speech he made on the Washington mall about those “little Black boys and Black girls” in Alabama joining hands with “little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”? Or do we also think about his other dreams — the more complex dreams that we haven’t yet seen?
King also dreamed of an America that doesn’t threaten other countries with its military might. An America that pays its workers living wages. An America that’s more about compassion than arrogance, more about reality than delusion. Those dreams are the exact opposite of the rhetoric we’ve heard for decades from gaslighting right-wing extremist politicians ranging from Pat Buchanan in the ’80s to the more recent Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, [Update: added] Marjorie Taylor Greene, Josh Hawley and Ron DeSantis, along with their deranged TV, Internet, and talk radio cheerleaders ranging from Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and the late Rush Limbaugh to [Update: added] Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens. The hateful words of those purportedly patriotic Christians come off more like the rantings of an Osama bin Laden than the measured wisdom of a Martin Luther King Jr.
“Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world,” King once warned. “God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, ‘You are too arrogant, and if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power…'”
At the risk of diminishing the great strides that this country has made in the half-century since King was gunned down in Memphis, I believe this nation is nowhere near achieving his dreams. [Update 2023: Since this piece originally ran, the country is not only nowhere near achieving Dr. King’s dreams, but with numerous recent radical Supreme Court decisions, we’ve begun to hurtle backward to pre-civil rights-era policies. (See previous years’ updates below.)] And for any of us to sit back and bask in those accomplishments while downplaying the very real problems that we still face with regard to intolerance in our nation is to disrespect King’s legacy.
The specter of racial hatred — and hatred of other marginalized groups — is everywhere today. We see it in the faces of the hordes of citizens whose anger over the nation’s first Black president is so intense that it can’t be chalked up to mere political differences. [Update 2016: It was rarely so clear than it was in 2014 and 2015, when we saw yet another uptick in police violence against Black men in America, and heard extraordinarily hateful words spewed by a GOP presidential candidate, Donald Trump, and his followers.] [Update 2021: That anger and hatred reached a new low on January 6, 2021, when violent white supremacists, abetted by Trump, stormed the Capitol in an insurrection the likes of which this nation had never seen.] [Update 2022: And we continue to see this hatred in the snarling faces of angry parents whose fear of a bogeyman called Critical Race Theory (CRT) is so intense that they’ve threatened educators across the country merely for trying to teach accurate American history.] We hear it in the voices of those whose rage toward Spanish-speaking brown people in the U.S. is so intense that it can’t be explained away as just opposition to so-called illegal immigration. We hear it in the smug condescension of those whose fear of homosexuality, gender dysphoria and women’s bodies is so intense that it can’t simply be attributed to their interpretation of a religious text. And we see it in the actions of those whose animosity over a mosque in New York City a few years ago was so intense that it couldn’t have been just concern for national security.
What is national security anyway? Is it an America where everyone looks alike and thinks and believes the same things? [Update 2022: Is it an America that allows domestic terrorists, in the guise of “patriotism,” to attack our most sacred national building and threaten our democracy?] Or is it an America that values democracy, diversity and cultural understanding? Say what you will, cover it up with whatever veil you choose, but the venom that we see every single day in this nation is the exact same racism, xenophobia and bigotry that we saw in the years before civil rights legislation. [Update 2022: In some cases, it’s much worse.] And this must stop or it will kill us all.
Some people don’t want to hear words like racism and xenophobia. Some say that those words are overused. Some feel that we should choose less “loaded” words to describe the toxic vitriol we hear and see on TV and radio, in the pages and comments sections of news outlets and blogs, and all over social media. Of course, some of us also don’t much like looking into mirrors, because we fear that we may have grown too fat or too old. Mirrors tell the truth.
Toward the end of “Dreams,” Gregg Allman wails, “Ah, help me, baby, or this will surely be the end of me.” Then he becomes calm again, his warm organ swells accompanying newfound courage in the lyrics: “Pull myself together, put on a new face. / Climb down off the hilltop, get back in the race.”
That’s what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us: persistence, courage, optimism. We will not survive without them.