Dr. King, Chili Dogs and the American Dream
“I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
Trying to make sense of what you perceive as injustice — it is of no use. It doesn’t make any sense. Authority, ignorance, fear, hatred, and prejudice does not persuade — rarely do these things persuade themselves into the minds of their holders by rationality. It is a hard thing to explain.
Or is it easy?
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Simple things can be hard. A fellow writer, Mr. Steve QJ, wrote an essay that seems to have been birthed —grew from a similar observation that me and many others have been feeling lately. No doubt he is a black man and I am a white man, but at the moment, for the sake of a thought experiment, can we put this aside?
Well, putting this aside is precisely the point of Mr. Steve QJ’s eloquent words and also the origin of my frustrations too. In the article, Steve quoted someone that for many reasons has been hailed as a father of liberty, the voice of the civil rights movement, and whose unmistakable rhetoric has been diluted to a more palatable drink.
He is a man whose speech has been quoted so many times, imitated in so many ways, that it can hardly be heard with open ears, hearts or minds. Of course, the speech that he delivered in late August, 1963, was not just delivered but sermonized by a very fine and fearless man at perhaps his finest and most fearless hour.
In Atlanta, it’s “Dr. King”. Ebenezer Baptist Church sits right in the heart of downtown Atlanta on Jackson Street. Near the historical church, there are a few other landmarks of local and international significance. The birthplace of Dr. King for one, was practically across the street. The World of Coca-Cola, which I visited with great delight as a child, and the Varsity restaurant — a casual place where you sit down and have a few chili dogs, a basket of rustic hand-cut fries, and where not ordering a frosted orange shake is a sin.
For me: 2 chili dogs with mustard, a basket of fries, and a frosted orange (I may not be religious, but I can quote scripture, too).
I am by no means Dr. King’s biographer. But perhaps it’s something like being from Liverpool and loving the Beatles. Bed-Stuy and Biggie. Port Arthur and Janis Joplin. Perhaps your foot touched the same concrete sidewalks as these greats. Perhaps even Dr. King enjoyed a chili dog, too.
“I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” A song we have long since memorized may very well be the song we forget to hear. In a sense, Dr. King's speech is a song — a song whose lyrics we know, but who’s the music we may have forgotten.
Like anything that is household, common knowledge, memorized, regurgitated, it loses its punch in the common air. It is synonymous with “for the good”, but we don’t agree on what “for the good” is.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.”
If a great speech delivered by a mellifluous voice can be thought of as a song, then surely a great song can be thought of as a painting. I can do this very well with Dr. Kings’ speech. Not because I am an artist, but because I have seen the painting clearly. As a child, I have scraped my knees on the red hills in Georgia he speaks of. I walked for miles alone gazing at downtown Atlanta’s skyline near his home and where he was born and the church he pastored.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be engulfed, every hill shall be exalted and every mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
What is easy to forget about the picture of Dr. King’s dream speech is that it paints a picture of the future, not of the past. While we must remember to not forget, we must always remember to look forward. Dr. King’s speech does this in a way that includes everyone in his vision of the future — not denying, relying on, or delighting in the nightmarish past.
It is a simple device, but a necessary one. How does someone get to a destination until they paint a picture of it? How does one navigate the waters of hatred, illusion, ignorance, illiteracy, and defensiveness without any type of guide? How do you know when you’ve reached your destination if you have no destination in mind?
“With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to climb up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
It is not that we must forget the past. For knowing where you have been, too, will ultimately help inform you as to where to go in the future.
But history has a wide tide, a steep wave and a sharp crest. It can come crashing down on you with all the weight, tumult, anger, consequence and vitriol of all the world’s historical sins at once. The past can be a nightmare. But it isn’t productive to submerge ourselves in those dark waters. We must come up for air to remind ourselves of the dream.
“This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”
I don’t think there is any real apology for the atrocities of the past. For those strict in their adherence to personal responsibility and agency, no sincere apology could be possible.
It is true that something can be overrated and underrated, banal and highly insightful, commonplace and ingenious at the same time. This happens when the misperception of its overvalue diminishes the appraisal of its true value.
The last time I was in Atlanta was during a two-hour layover at Hartsfield. Although I never had time to leave the airport, I stepped outside for a moment to catch a glimpse of my old hometown. I hadn’t been on Georgia soil for years. I could make out some buildings of East Point and College Park where I spent lots of time, where I went to school, and where I worked.
The flight I boarded led me to a place far away from Atlanta, Georgia — like it had many times before.
“And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that, let freedom, ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi and every mountainside.”
While in Atlanta, you may or may not be in the promised land, I simply don’t know. I lack the wisdom. I don't live there anymore. But you are in the birth city of an American visionary. You are surrounded by its architecture and the city of its architect. For what lies ahead on the road to the promised land of Dr. King’s? Surely, we cannot know. But a dream is something not to lose sight of, and we make commonplace of Dr. King’s dream at the risk of going blind. We forget the melody of its song at the risk of going deaf.
“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men, and white men, Jews, and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
After you have taken your time, don’t forget to stop and smell the roses. In Atlanta, this means heading up to The Varsity on North Avenue and getting yourself in line — the crowd will be bustling but it moves quicker than you would think. At The Varsity, there is no pretension, no hierarchy. The food is made by angels. Go see them in Atlanta and ponder your dreams over a Frosted Orange and a basket of fries and a chili dog. Surely, the promised land is not just a dream. It is a real place. I think in some ways I have seen it. And surely, they must serve chili dogs.
Wrong Speak Publishing is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.