In October, when I was first planning to write an essay about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s enduring dreams and nightmares, I did not know that in January the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, a Black man who is the senior pastor of Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, would be elected to the U.S. Senate to represent Georgia. Or that he would be elected alongside Jon Ossoff, a Jewish man and former investigative reporter who had been mentored by the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, one of King’s closest allies. Nor could anyone, including Dr. King, have dreamed that the U.S. Capitol would be overtaken by, as the U.S. Army described them, domestic terrorists, during the joint session of Congress to ratify the Electoral College vote.

These are the two sides of Dr. King’s vision, the yin and yang of dreams and nightmares. In America, fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream has always meant struggling to outpace recurring nightmares. Dr. King asserted that “there has never been a single solid, determined commitment of large segments of white America on the whole question of racial equality. Vacillation has always existed … since the founding of our nation.” He went on to suggest that support for the civil rights movement came largely from white Americans’ temporary response to the brutal treatment of Black people under the direction of officials like Police Commissioner Bull Connor or Sheriff Jim Clark. The dream gains ground on the nightmare, but only temporarily, in the aftermath of some instance of undeniable horror.

One such horror occurred on Memorial Day 2020, when a 46-year-old unarmed Black man, George Floyd, was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. We can recall the outrage that ensued across America and around the world at racial injustice. But the question is unavoidable: Will that “moment” be similar to the temporary support Dr. King spoke about regarding the civil rights movement? Was the outrage this past summer merely a reaction to the sickening video-documented brutality of Mr. Floyd’s murder and not really about creating lasting racial equality and breaking down systemic oppression?

We have to ask ourselves if Dr. King would feel that his dreams of racial equality have come to fruition now that a Black man and a Jewish man will serve the state of Georgia together – even two men with such direct ties to his legacy.

These are important, symbolic milestones, to be sure, and they deserve to be celebrated. But racial symbolism is not enough. I believe Dr. King would be proud of Warnock and Ossoff, but he would not consider their elections a manifestation of his dream.

Dr. King said that America was content at achieving decency but had no intention of going as far as true equality. He believed the history of Black people in our society led to “… the ‘thingification’ of the Negro” and that Black people were dehumanized and thought of as “less than.” Now, 54 years later, would we say that we have achieved racial equality?

Even as Americans were outraged and even terrorized by nightmarish scenes of the U.S. Capitol violently occupied for the first time since the British invasion during the War of 1812, were they equally outraged by the lack of coordinated security presence – in dramatic contrast to the extensive and aggressive security detail when Black, white, Latino and many other people came together to support Black lives after the murder of Mr. Floyd?

Unfortunately, I doubt that most Americans will agree that racial injustice and the “thingification of the Negro” was a major theme that anchored the nightmare of the U.S. Capitol invasion this month.

As a university leader charged with overseeing diversity, equity and inclusion, part of my role is to facilitate difficult conversations and ask thoughtful and uncomfortable questions in the pursuit of knowledge and a more just society. With that in mind, I’ll say that only time will tell whether Mr. Floyd’s murder will have a lasting impact on King’s dream of racial equality. Temporary reaction to brutality was his concern then and should be our concern now.

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