50 Years After “I Have a Dream”

Shabbat Ki Tavo


Clybourne Park is a play now on stage at the Dorset Theatre Festival.


Act One takes place in 1959, a mere four years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr gave his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:  Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is 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. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This speech was given only four years after the time of Act One of Clybourne Park in 1959, the fictional neighborhood in Chicago.  The conditions of 1959 were the conditions of 1963.


The Clybourne Park neighborhood in 1959 was a white middle class enclave, where the owners of this particular home was sold at a fire sale price to an African American family. For the black family, their aspiration was to move into a nice middle class neighborhood to raise their family.  


In the first act, the sellers of the house have no idea that they have sold to African Americans and a man who fancies himself as a community activist, came to the house to try to talk them out of selling the house.


The seller told him in purple prose to blank off and leave.  


1959 was still a time when institutionalized racism was quite public, especially in the south, but also continued in an insidious fashion in the north as in restrictive covenants that in many of the same cities where blacks were restricted also put restrictions on Jews as well.   


When Dr. King spoke in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, his words to forever enter the rarefied world of history-changing speeches, the racial situation was still complex and public life made racism overt.


Fast forward to 2009.  Forty-six years after Dr. King’s speech.  Forty-one years after his death.  


The place:  Chicago.


The scene:  the same house that was sold to the African American family a half-century earlier.


Only this time it is being sold to a young white family who plan to tear it down and build a “McMansion.”


Lawyered up, the buyers and the neighborhood association are going at it--but unlike the surface racism of 1959, overt, unapologetic,


in 2009 the racism is veiled in polite discourse on the surface.  


Once each side gets going with the jokes, the stereotypes of both black and white people get held up under the sharp light of today.


Neither side is truly funny--both offer up jokes that reflect long held stereotypes about blacks and whites.  If there was laughing in the audience it was because the jokes sounded so outrageous to our ears.

Much has changed since the “I Have a Dream Speech” and little has changed.


Overt racism--the lunch counters, the busses, the segregated schools--are illegal.


The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured that people could vote in states where blacks were traditionally encountering discrimination at the poll at least until the last term of the US Supreme Court.  Then, the court  ruled that states were subject to the Justice Department’s review could now go forward with their new laws without federal oversight.  Many see these laws as disenfranchising voters, especially minorities.


And what about us?


There are few people of color in this congregation and most of us come from similar backgrounds, even if we have different “brands” of how we are Jewish.  


Most of us, I’m confident, think of ourselves as being open-minded and equitable in our approach to all peoples.  


Yet still, I believe, it we look not too far under the surface, we may find that there is some discomfort with people who are different from us.  


It is part of the human condition: we want to be around others who are like ourselves.  People who are different from us can make us uncomfortable.  


When Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote The Prophets and published it in English in 1962 he noted that the nature of humanity at the time of the prophets was no different than today.  


Dr. King, a modern day prophet who knew Heschel, gave his speech 50 years ago, and while outwardly we may be more accepting of our differences, what lies under the surface still exists in all of us.  


The fact remains that there will always be some level of tension among people who are different than us.


Fifty years later we have an idea of how these inequalities work and are committed to removing them from our society; at the same time we acknowledge that an undercurrent remains.


As Dr. King said in 1963 that President Lincoln put the down payment on race relations in this country in 1863.  


Today, we should be pleased that so much has changed since the 1960s.


Yet as Clybourne Park demonstrates,


as we reflect on 50 years since I Have a Dream,


as we look back on the progress in the public sector,


And as we continue to heighten our introspection in anticipation of the high holy days,


we have the opportunity to honestly take stock of our attitudes about others and ourselves.

© 2017- 2019

Rabbi David Novak