The alignment of Martin Luther King Day with the start of the spring semester has always seemed fortuitous to me. For a communication scholar, whenever the world takes a moment to reflect on great speeches is a win. In the “I Have a Dream Speech” it is easy to see that the message is created from the words, the context, the cadence, and the messenger. It is a rhetorical work of art, and it never fails to inspire. But it isn’t my discipline that excites me about the alignment of new semesters and MLK day, it is the feeling of hope and unity that this day of reflection brings for me.
Today I am struck by what I would describe as the cadence of we. King builds his argument for civil rights with the language of history, the details of the present struggle, and the rhythms of the church. Drawing on the words and the presence of Lincoln, we remember our Emancipation Proclamation and the struggle for a just society so far. Invoking our Declaration of Independence and the stated inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” he argues that undoing the ravages of racism and segregation is a debt owed to all oppressed people. Repeating the phrase “I have a dream” he builds a world that must reject the hideousness of Jim Crow, revealing a possible future where all people are truly free.
Every time I read the text I weep. How can I not? In a message that does not shrink from describing the horrors that flow from racist policies, practices, and prejudices, he helps us see a path forward. The call to action is meaningful and possible, empowering his audience to join this good fight. The dream he describes builds a world that is honest, wholesome, and just. It is a world that frees us from the cognitive dissonance that must arise if we take the promise of those inalienable rights seriously. And despite the terrible biases that we are still fighting today, many of the images that King describes have come to pass. Reading it today gives me the strength to persevere and the confidence that we can do better.
What I find most interesting is how King uses the “I” to create the feeling of “we.” This is a powerful strategy. In describing his dream, he describes people and circumstances that reflect the kind of just society to which all of us should aspire. By invoking our shared history and common documents, it is clear that his dream must be our dream, or we betray ourselves. The I becomes the we.
At this moment in history, finding that we seems incredibly challenging. We have gotten so good at finding distinctions between us that the path to common goals can feel impossible. Social media are sorting us with their (our) algorithms, and we are sorting ourselves into teams. Bumper stickers are frequently cruel, and flags have become weapons. Finding common ground seems impossible.
Ironically, some of these divisions are arising from our efforts to be more inclusive. As we discover the gaps in our histories, we see the differences between our experiences more clearly. This can leave us feeling that trying to draw throughlines that bind us is reductive at best. Seeking common ground feels like trivializing the important differences that we are endeavoring to understand. This is a conundrum to be sure.
I am happy that we have become more attuned to the ways in which the stories we tell often neglect important details about the lives and experiences of so many people. If we’re honest, the stories of my youth actually left out most people. The stories my children learned included more people, but there were still many who were missing. We are on to the next generation and have established a habit of discovering the gaps in our stories. This is a good thing. But we can’t just stop at identifying the gaps. We have to build new visions of a shared future, weaving our stories together. We must not lose the we.
So, why do I see the timing of MLK Day and the start of the semester as fortuitous? Because it is an invitation to think about how to transition from I to we, and the role education must play in that transition. In 1963, King delivered his most famous speech, the world was incredibly divided. King’s vision was for a better world than the violent and segregated spaces in which he lived. If he could see the better world in that context, surely, we can see a better world as well. Surely, we can find a path to the we again.
King describes the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as a promissory note, a debt that must be paid. Education can help us pay that debt. It is the place where we should build shared understandings, even as we challenge the status quo. It is a place where we must learn and unlearn our histories, broadening our understandings of how our values and our institutions differentially impact communities. It is a place where, as we uncover the things that we’ve overlooked in science, in art, in economics, and literature, we do not leave discouraged, but inspired to solve problems together.
Education promises a path to freedom for the individual, while building a better understanding of the experiences of the many. Those new understandings must serve as a call to action, revealing possible paths forward so that all of us are truly free. I have a dream that education can create a new sense of we, helping us rise above the divisiveness of this moment in history, and inspiring us to collaborate for a better future for everyone. Let’s make it so.