Bernice King: Dream Defender

Edward Wyckoff Williams
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Bernice King (Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

(The Root) — On an historic day in August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered these words on the state of racial affairs in America a century after the Emancipation Proclamation: "One hundred years later the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination."

Fast-forward 50 years later: There is an African-American president in the Oval Office, but there are more black males in prison than were enslaved in 1850. Black and brown people are indiscriminately stopped, frisked, harassed and sometimes killed by the very authorities sworn to protect and serve them. The legacy of discrimination has given this generation its own Emmett Till by way of Trayvon Martin. And African Americans experience disparate inequities across socioeconomic parameters — from housing and education to unemployment and criminal justice.

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So the struggle continues.

Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the great civil rights leader and current CEO of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, spoke to The Root on the eve of the historic 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which saw her father deliver his transcendent "I Have a Dream" speech. She discussed the unique challenges facing the African-American community and what it means to live in a supposedly "postracial" era in which racism and inequality continue to plague America. King expressed her desire to inspire a new generation of young leaders fighting for change, who are driven by the hope that the present has brought us and committed to defending the dream.

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The Root: In 1955, Emmett Till was brutally murdered, and after the trial, his three white assailants walked free. In 2013, another innocent, unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, was killed, and his killer walked free. Barack Obama is the first black president, but he struggles against an obstinate faction of the Republican Party. In light of how far we've come, and how far we have yet to go in the fight for equal justice, where does the dream stand now?

Bernice King: I hate to put this in spiritual terms, but there's a biblical scripture that says, "Write the vision down and make it plain, so that the people may run with the vision." My father obviously spoke the vision, and he did that in different ways — not just through "I Have a Dream," but also in his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? He was giving us a blueprint for the future. What comes to me is this: that the dream is waiting for the people. The dream is waiting for the people to grab hold of it and really run with it.

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I think at times the dream has been suspended, and we've been going around in circles. Like my father said at his speech in Memphis, "We can't stop here in Memphis." It's one thing for us to come together in a moment to address particular issues, but we must do more than address; we must create an atmosphere of transformation. We must transform hearts, systems, structures and policies.

TR: So why don't these transformative moments occur? Have we become apathetic to tragedy and disparity? Are we numb to the stories of Trayvon, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Oscar Grant?

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BK: I don't know if we realize how distracted we get. One thing happens and then another thing happens, and if we were focused and intent, we would realize that some of what happens is the same thing over again. Maybe the characters change and the individuals change, but it has similar issues and similar tones. Some kind of way we must sit down and get focused. We need a moment like Montgomery, a moment around which people can become galvanized. And that keeps them connected until we have a real victory. That victory can then inspire people to more deeply address the systemic problems in our society. And history teaches us that. The movements in the 1960s, like the student riots and Freedom Rides, all happened because young people were encouraged and inspired by Montgomery to do something.

Like I said before, the dream is waiting on the people.

TR: You must be inspired by the fact that your father's dream has proliferated. Many people have a dream now: the women's rights movement, LGBT civil rights, the Occupy movement focused on income inequality and the Dreamers pushing for immigration reform and a path to citizenship. These are outgrowths of the civil rights movement, which your father inspired. Do you feel the diversity of the new era of civil rights undermines the broader goals?

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BK: I believe that diversity is positive and inevitable. My only concern is that sometimes your efforts can become diluted because each group has a different agenda. We must find a way to transcend that. We all must find a common thread. This reminds me of a scripture in Nehemiah which says, "The work is extensive and we are widely separated on the wall. But when you hear the sound of the trumpet, come to that spot." What that means to me is that in order for us to resist the enemy of progress, we must come together. That's what my father did — he brought people together.

TR: When President Obama addressed the tragic verdict in the murder trial of Trayvon Martin he ended on an optimistic note by highlighting the fact that his children and their friends were increasingly colorblind, and far better off than his generation or those before it. Is this not the fulfillment, in part, of your father's dream? And doesn't progress take generations to correct the ills of the past? If so, does that mean that even 100 years from now, we will still need a movement?

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BK: Yes. But let me first say that my father was not looking for a colorblind society. He didn't want us to ignore our differences and distinctions. What he wanted was for us to not use those differences and distinctions to oppress or exploit people. He wanted us to respect those differences.

To your second point, yes, we will always need a movement.

My mother always said, "Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it in every generation." You may not have to revisit the same things, but every generation has to make its contribution to the struggle for freedom. And that struggle matures us, and every generation needs to be matured. That maturity allows us to see our oneness. I see the struggle continuing until we achieve the beloved community — where we truly see ourselves as one. A community in which everyone has dignity and is allowed to prosper in their lives.

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Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. 

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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