As a child growing up in Africa, I was a dreamer. My parents encouraged this. No matter how outright unbelievable my dreams might be, they assured me that dreams do come true. Dreams provide a glimpse of what the future will look like. How I wish I could have recorded all those dreams.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was recorded. His dream was played out in front of millions of people. As he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, most of us can still hear his remarkable prose: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight and the glory of the lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
Martin’s dream was a significant and compelling vision of the future at a time when overwhelming obstacles seemed impossible and improbable to overcome. He knew how difficult it is to make change happen. Herecognized that monumental changes take considerable time. Indeed, it takes the force of nature to break through the harsh reality of the status quo and history.
I could not help but think of Dr. King on March 24 of this year when Iwatched hundreds of thousands of people jammed shoulder to shoulder on the streets of Washington, D.C. indeed, most of them were not even alive when Martin shared his own dream so many years ago. Yet they shared with Martin that same dream, a dream of a better world, one that is safer and saner, with fewer obstacles to overcome and more opportunities to achieve as individuals and as a society.
Too often, we tend to view people like Dr. King and the Parkland students – or even the women behind the me-too movement – as deviants or troublemakers. They hold no official positions of leadership, why do they try to lead when they lack authority? The answer is simple. When official leadership fails or fails even to try, so-called mavericks move to fill the leadership vacuum.
That was the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He knew that dreams can come true, as long as you try. As a civil rights leader, he challenged the status quo. He championed unity as a means to an end, where all Americans are bound not by race or economic status, but as individuals who are valued.
Dr. King’s sense of constructive impatience inspired many of his day who saw a courageous man with the audacity to challenge an establishment that held all the power and authority. In the same way, the students of the mass shooting generation are demonstrating similar courage and audacity in challenging an establishment that has failed them once too often.
Dr. King was assassinated in the middle of his dream. His efforts to transform a divided nation were cut short. Yet, he succeeded in transforming an ideal into a cause that ultimately yielded remarkable results. His “I have a Dream” conversation with America gave us a blueprint for how to lead from where we are and reminded us that leadership is exercised best for a just cause. The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. is that we should not be afraid to lead. We are not obliged to accept the status quo. He challenged us to look beyond our present and create a greater future.
You may vilify dreamers, you may criticize them, and you may even assassinate them. But, you can’t kill a dreamer’s dream. Dreams may take a long time to come to fruition, and there will no doubt be only small steps forward as well as big setbacks along the way. But there is a power in dreaming that cannot be deterred.
As we seek to tackle the magnificent challenges of our time: the greatest economic divide, healthcare, poverty, and peace, let us remember to never stop dreaming and know that the results we seek are possible.
Martin knew it would happen. He foresaw that his own demise wouldkeep him from seeing his dream come true. “I’ve seen the promise land,” he said. “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.” Fifty-three years later, his vision is still unfolding, carried forth by a new generation of dreamers. That should give us all hope that, in fact, dreams do come true.
Benjamin Ola. Akande
Senior Advisor to Chancellor
Washington University, St. Louis, MO
Former President Westminster College, Fulton, MO