When Shall We Overcome?

By C. Eric Lincoln

Vol. 1, No. 5, 1979, pp. 4-5

A man died. That was eleven years ago.

A man died who ought not to have died: not because he was a Black man, but because he was a good man;

not because he had a dream, but because the dream he had was so critical for a people who had forgotten how to dream; for a nation whose dreams had lost their meaning;

not because he was a Christian, but because in being truly Christian his love for his fellow man transcended all religions and all diviions of men;

not because his death was a personal loss for those who knew him and loved him, but because his dying was a national tragedy for those who believe in the promise of America; and because his death was a temporary triumph for those who would deny that promise. For the promise of America is the American Dream, but for too many Americans it is a Dream that was never meant to be. There are those who would be Killers of the Dream, and for them the routine expression of the American Way of Life is the consignment of the poor and the undefended to the American Way of Death through poverty, disease, deception and discrimination.

Our greater tragedy is that the people we seem to kill most readily are the people whose dreams we find most troubling: dreams that refuse to articulate with the prevailing way of doing things here in America. And so with the poor and the defenseless, we kill the Abraham Lincolns, the John Kennedys, the Malcolm Xs, the Martin Luther Kings and whomever else dares to dream against the grain of the waythings are. We kill the dreamers to get at the dream in the childish belief that dreams die with the man.

Not so. Dreams die hard, if ever they die at all.

For no matter the name of the dreamer, once a dream is spoken, it belongs to the people. It lives in the people, and it can only die if the people reject it, or if the people themselves are exterminated. So let it be known that whomever would kill a dream must be prepared to first kill all the people who believe in it; or else to so narcotize them with circuses, or dazzle them with counterfeits that they forget the dream and the dreamer, and succumb to illusion and deceit. The nations who have traveled that road have inevitably paid the price, for when the people lose their dreams, they lose their confidence. When they lose their confidence, they lose their self-respect. And when they lose their self-respect, their freedom can be taken away from them.

Today our cities are floundering in crisis and decay. Our jails are filled to overflowing. Our public schools have been turned into holding pens and battlegrounds; men and women who want to work, and who need to work to survive with dignity, walk the streets and haunt the taverns for want of jobs.

Those who challenge the way things are find themselves harassed and intimidated, or silenced with unjust incarceration. They are the political prisoners Andrew Young had the temerity to bring to the world's attention. Those of doubtful and sober minds turn to introspection; and those who believe in the righteousness of God wonder at the limits of His patience and tremble in the anticipation of His justice. Though we search and re-search the accumulated records of our national comportment, we find in them no compelling reasons for solace or satisfaction. It seems clear that somewhere America has gone wrong! It is not so much the empty pews where God and man used to meet that mark the people's disaffection and dereliction, as it is the empty faces, the empty hearts, the empty lives.

The divorce rate is astronomical; the suicide rate is unbelievable. The murder rate far exceeds that for any other "civilized" nation in the world. This is America. The showplace of democracy; the citadel of freedom. A nation under God. The place where dreams come true. What happened? What happened to America? What has happened to us, for we make America what it is?

Our tragedy is that the American Dream has been compromised by false visions and spurious promises of those who would demean that dream. Our hope, unsubstantiated by performance, is too often made the hope of children, or the hope of fools - uninformed, Uninquiring, and unassessed. The characteristic political art of our times is delusion by confusion - the diffraction and scattering of half-truths and un-truths to the end that reality is obscured under an avalanche of words which do not mean anything, and are not intended to mean anything. Their function is merely to confuse the real issues and thus to silence opposition and paralyze response.


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More than that, we have developed a frightening affinity for self-delusion, which is the art of putting an acceptable face on what is patently unacceptable through the manipulation of words and the meaning of words. We have become masters at persuading people to believe what they know isn't so through the employment of a kind of lingual cosmetology. When spending what you haven't got is dismissed as "a negative cash flow," and when shacking up is explained as "experimental living," or when the murder of innocent individuals becomes quasirespectable because it is defined as a "contract," or "extreme social alienation," we have gone a far piece down the road toward legitimizing the illegitimate, and blurring the lines by which civilizations have traditionally sought to order human existence and give it direction.

The ultimate objective of such casuistry is, of course, the avoidance of human responsibility. If up and down are indistinguishable, and if all corners are round, then morality has no meaning, and one act is as good as another, barring some temporary inconvenience. No one can be held accountable if the conditions of accountability are sufficiently confused, or if there is no way to determine the place where the good and the not-good, the true and the not-true, the beautiful and the ugly separate and depart from each other.

The immediate, practical benefit of a philosophy of moral indistinction is release from the necessity of making choices. If no ethical principles can be clearly identified, then the implications for restraint and circumspection in such traditional areas of high moral concern as religion, politics, sexual behavior, human and family relationships soon vanish, individual accountability becomes obsolete, and human relations are reduced to a state of nature in which life becomes increasingly nasty, mean, solitary, brutish and short.

In a swiftly paced society such as our own, there is increasingly less opportunity for reflection and introspection.

Decisions are ad hoc: choices involving the most serious consequences are made on the flip of a coin. Millions of Americans, who are otherwise rational and intelligent, have come near to giving up making choices altogether. They have accepted instead a pre-determined print-out of their behavior based on the doubtful projections of astrology, bypassing reason, science and experience in a childlike pursuit of fantasy and easy answers. Yet, our eagerness to consign to the stars the burden of rational choice is perhaps one more evidence of the increasing onerousness of human responsibility, the release from which we struggle so vainly to accomplish.

Our destiny is not in the stars. Neither is the truth we need to make accountability reasonable and responsibility endurable. Nor is responsibility the exclusive province of any particular race, or sex, or age group, or political party, or church or denomination. It is of critical importance now to realize that our destiny is where it always was, that our national greatness can never transcend our national behavior, and that our national responsibility begins with the earnest concern for the welfare of all the people. What is the people's welfare? It was spelled out for all time in the founding documents of the commonwealth: It is life - which includes the means of earning a decent living at a decent wage. It is liberty, which means freedom of conscience and freedom from unjust restraint or incarceration. It is the pursuit of happiness, which means the right of equal participation in all of the common values of this society regardless of your race, your sex, or your religion. Too many Americans are penalized, not because they have done wrong, but because they have the wrong name, or the wrong address, or the wrong color, or the wrong sex, or the wrong attitude, or the vrong political opinion, or the wrong friends, or the wrong amount of money.

A man died eleven years ago.

A great man died with a dream that we would overcome the great wrong that makes it so wrong to be poor, or to be Black or to be without the privileges of status and power. It is time now to get on with the resuscitation of a dream that never was, but could have been, rather than to continue to live perpetually in the shadow of that dream, or in our weakness and despair consign in to destruction. It is time for the high principles which once distinguished our efforts and encouraged our success to be brought out of hiding. It is time to shake off the shackles of accommodation to chauvinism; time to lift a torch of conviction; time to get on with the process of humanizing our deteriorating social order. It is time to ask ourselves, "What happened to the promise that was America?" It is time to give substance to the Dream of the gentle Dreamer who eleven years ago surrendered his life on the altar of America's racial intransigence.

C. Eric Lincoln is Professor of Religion at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.