Each year during Black History Month, I enjoy listening to sound bites from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. My favorites are the so-called “Mountain Top” speech and the “I have a Dream” speech. In the latter, Dr. King characterized the American Dream as a land where an individual’s worth is determined by the measure of one’s character and not the color of one’s skin.
If one compares America today with America during the fifties and sixties when I was in school, it cannot be denied that much progress has been made toward realizing Dr. King’s dream. Even in Mississippi, Black and White folks can sit together in a fast-food burger joint—the dime store and drugstore lunch counters having long since vanished—and enjoy a hamburger, fries, and cola without fear of falling victim to a lynch mob. And even though 12 o’clock noon on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America, some Whites and African Americans gather together for worship and prayer. There are even some interracial churches, although theological differences and cultural preferences in style of worship will likely keep them from becoming the norm anytime soon.
I believe that what Dr. King referred to in his “I have a Dream” speech was very different from what the Founding Fathers and their descendants desired. The Europeans who came to America did not come to establish some utopian society of free speech, freedom of religion, or equality. The indentured servants who were brought to Jamestown found themselves in servitude. The individuals fortunate enough to live long enough to fulfill their agreed terms of service often found that the length of their service had been extended for some technical reason. Masters were legally allowed to impose harsh punishments for alleged offensives, including whippings. Some died as a result. Some were disfigured or disabled. It is estimated that roughly 60 percent of the indentured servants died before fulfilling their terms of service. Some tried to run away, but where would they go?
The Calvinist Pilgrims and Puritans came to New England to enjoy religious freedom. But what did they understand by “religious freedom?” They left England because they could not reconcile their beliefs and practices with those of the Established Church of England (a.k.a, Anglican). They saw themselves as God’s elect, chosen by God for eternal bliss, while all others were sentenced to eternal damnation.
The Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Separatists of Plymouth Colony were Congregationalists, and if you lived within their jurisdiction, you had to be a member of the Congregationalist Church. They believed very strongly in the separation of church and state, but they believed that one of the primary functions of civil authority was to punish those who violated God’s laws as defined by the clergy.
There was no freedom of speech or religion in the Puritan colonies. Banishment from the settlement was the fate of those who refused to conform. Punishments for violating Puritan laws included fines, imprisonment, pillory, stocks, whipping, ducking stool, public humiliation, hanging, tar and feathering, cutting off ears, burning, and even a hot awl through the tongue if an individual spoke against their religion. Failure to attend church services was punishable by time in the stocks, a public whipping (adults and children), a fine of 50 pounds of tobacco, or six months of rowing. Roger Williams (1635) and Anne Hutchinson (1638) are the best-known examples of those who were banished for refusing to conform.
I believe, however, that what Dr. King envisioned on that memorable day in Washington, D.C. was not so much the American Dream dreamt by our Founding Fathers as the myth of the American Dream. Neither the Native Americans, women, nor enslaved Africans considered property that could be bought and sold were included among those who, “according to the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” “were created equal, that their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (Declaration of Independence). Those Europeans who came to America wanted to establish a land of opportunity, not a land of brotherhood. They desired a land where the individual would be free to pursue their own economic gain unhindered by any moral or ethical precepts of Judeao-Christianity. This version of the American Dream has been the motivating force in American history.
Anyone who doubts the degree to which the vision of the Founding Fathers has been realized need only take a trip to their neighborhood Stuffmart Super Center. One can be found on the edge of just about every community, large or small. Often open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they are surrounded by acres of free parking spaces filled with cars, vans, RV’s, and pickup trucks displaying bumper stickers proclaiming “God Bless America,” “NRA,” “Fight Crime Shoot Back,” “In Guns We Trust,” “In Jesus We Trust and He is Armed,” .and many more.
Everyone is equal at the local Stuffart Super Center. “Come as you are” is taken literally by Stuffmart’s loyal shoppers. Many look like escapees from a carnival sideshow of human oddities. Recently I saw a woman who was somewhat overweight. She looked like a giant, round balloon with a head on top and four appendages. She had taken a large portion of her frontal girth, like a big bag of liquid fat, and lifted it and placed it in the area usually occupied by an infant. I am not kidding you!
The inside of a Stuffmart Super Center is a wonderland of gadgets and widgets from all over the third world. The shelves are filled with a cornucopia of cheap merchandise. Whether or not one can afford to make a purchase, one can touch, smell, try on, and sometimes taste the goods offered for sale. The smiling employees are not referred to as unskilled laborers, retail clerks, cashiers, or simply employees. They are called “team members.” Pride in being a team member of a gigantic international retail empire helps team members to overlook the fact that they are working for minimal wages and no benefits, that in many cases, they are only part-time team members whose earnings qualify them for welfare.
Not everyone who walks down the aisles of their local Stuffmart Super Center is there to purchase necessary provisions. Some like to simply “window shop.” They allow themselves to dream of upgrading their lifestyle by filling their cart with many things they never knew they needed to enjoy life. Also, Stuffmart is a convenient place to meet friends. If fortunate enough to have a Stuffmart Super Center with a snack bar area, friends can meet and remind each other how God has blessed America with material prosperity. For a few moments, anyone can escape the nagging suspicion that in America, in the final analysis, the individual’s worth is determined neither by character nor skin color but by the balance in one’s bank account.
The Founding Fathers would no doubt smile with satisfaction if they could see how successful their experiment in self-government has been. America remains a land of opportunity where the strong, industrious, and clever can succeed and enjoy the fruits of their success in the struggle for survival without feeling the need to help those who are losers in the struggle for survival. Opportunity, not success or even a minimal standard of living, is the American Dream.
Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures, and always go under the mercy