Eyes on the dream, three Islanders reflect on Dr. King’s vision

Jessica B. Harris — File photo by Lynn Christoffers

In February, the nation celebrates Black History Month and honors the contributions and accomplishments of African Americans to our country’s history.

The Times recently asked several notable Island residents to speak to the question of how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were he alive today, would assess the state of race relations and African-American inclusion in American society.

The Times spoke to writer Shelley Christiansen, educator Robert C. Hayden Jr., and writer and professor Jessica B. Harris.

Shelley ChristiansenSpeculating on someone’s what-if mindset is an iffy thing, when you were never acquainted with the person in the first place. That said, I doubt Dr. King was so naive as to think his dream would materialize in some finite “ta-dum” fashion. He probably considered the dream an eternal work in progress.

In 2012, he would find that America increasingly embraces its rainbow population, true to his vision. Yet, he’d hardly be surprised that elements of prejudice, hatred, and exclusion remain alive and kicking. They’re just more blind or insidious than they used to be — except when they’re not.

Mr. King would likely be stunned that America voted an African-American into the White House in what might have been his own lifetime. He might be nearly as stunned to discover that, despite the social reforms he helped trigger, many African-Americans are stuck in society’s waste bin deeper than ever and maybe for good. Many don’t even dare to dream.

Ms. Christiansen is a freelance writer, a regular essayist for local NPR station WCAI and real estate broker. She lives in Oak Bluffs and serves on several community boards.

Robert C. Hayden Jr.

I think he would implore us to fight injustices, certainly in schools, but in all areas of society in which injustice still exists in this country. Yes, for people of color, certainly, but really for all our people. Certainly there are gaps in educational achievements, disparities in healthcare, so, no, I don’t think he would be satisfied.

We have come a long way and that progress is rooted in the civil rights movement. The election of President Obama is an example. For an African-American to be elected president goes back to the civil rights movement, back decades to the 1920s and 1930s.

Many of Dr. King’s legacies have been left. But do our children know the long, painful process? They get flashes of it on TV, here and there. Churches have a responsibility and schools have a responsibility. I had that role as an educator and I believe parents and grandparents have that responsibility.

I want to underscore that all children, regardless of race, need to know this history. A 15-part documentary called “Eyes on the Prize,” available in libraries, is a wonderful teaching tool. I used it and recommend it to everyone.

Dr. King espoused non-violence and that legacy is very much alive. For example, I note that non-violent action, such as the Occupy movement today, is accepted as the way to do it. I’m very proud of the work young black people have done to rejuvenate the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). We need that organization to be a strong voice.

Certainly Dr. King’s work had an effect on me. I entered Boston University to major in biochemistry the year after he completed theological studies there and went to Atlanta to pastor the Ebenezer Baptist Church. I became an educator and historian with a body of work in African-American history. I guess that’s my legacy from him.

He left an important imprint in Boston and Massachusetts as well. I marched in the protest march he led from Roxbury to the Statehouse in 1965 to demand better schools. Boston was a tough city to crack. It took a lot of courage and sacrifice. Black kids attended only 60 schools then and education levels in all Boston schools, regardless of student race, was very poor. The racial imbalance law that followed directed focus on quality education for all Boston schools.

Mr. Hayden is an Oak Bluffs resident with a long career as an activist, educator, Boston school administrator, and historian. He has authored, co-authored or edited 22 books on African-American history, written a book on African-American history on the Island and written a history of the Boston chapter of the NAACP. He is a past president of the Boston NAACP, and he founded the Island branch of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History.

Jessica B. Harris

If Dr. King were alive today, I think he would give us very mixed reviews. First and foremost, I think he’d be astonished by the fact that the face on the American presidency is a brown one.

I think he would be equally pleased and astonished that some of the same folks who were with him when he made his “I have a Dream” speech were sitting In the same city only a few decades later witnessing the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as president of the United States.

I think that Dr. King would equally be pleased with the progress that African Americans have made in some areas of endeavor.

However, I think he would be distressed to note that while advances have been made, African Americans still remain disproportionately a part of America’s underclass with some statistics indicating that some advances may even be eroding. I suspect that Dr. King would be equally dismayed to see that his vision of a world at peace has been replaced by the world at war in which we now live. We’d rate at best, I suspect, a good solid B, nothing higher.

Jessica B. Harris is the author of 12 critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora, including, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.” She has lectured on African-American foodways at institutions and colleges throughout the United States and abroad. She is currently a professor at Queens College/C.U.N.Y. and consultant to the Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture at Dillard University.

Correction February 27:

The description of Robert Hayden was corrected from the print version published February 23 to reflect that Mr. Hayden was a past president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, not the Martha’s Vineyard chapter.