I Have a Nightmare

I am saddened to join with you today in what may go down in history as the most depleted cry for freedom in the history of our nation.

Two score years ago, a great American stood in the shadow of another great American who, years before that, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That decree that was supposed to be momentous. A decree meant to be a great beacon of light only serves as the glare of distant hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. That proclamation was meant to be a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But nearly one hundred and fifty years later, the Negro still is not free. The Negro is still sadly crippled by manacles, not born of segregation and the chains of discrimination any longer, but bred of institutionalized injustice and raised under the guise of liberty and justice for all whom our unfair legal system sees fit. Nearly one hundred and fifty years later, the entire middle class drifts towards the lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Nearly one hundred and fifty years later, minorities as a whole—and from my experience, the Negro especially—are still languishing in the corners of American society and the Negro finds himself an exile in his own land, a villain in the heroic story of this nation, and the bloody specter of unjust aggression. Burdened even under titles, the African-American, the Asian-American, the Hispanic-American, all racial modifiers that slash at the foundation of the underpinning of their existence as simply Americans. So I have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. Let this serve as my response to pundits and demagogues who ask “what would Dr. Martin Luther King say?”

But nearly one hundred and fifty years later, the Negro still is not free.

In a sense we beg our nation’s capital to cash that long-ago-written check. When the architects of this republic, I do not say our because we are rarely served by it, 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—to include black men and to not downplay or forget the promise made to our black women—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given people of color a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt, despite the lives and blood of black bodies that have paid in full and filled this nation’s sacrificial coffers. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation, while those tasked with serving and protecting us occupy our neighborhoods in war couture that costs upwards of millions of dollars. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us, upon demand, the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have come to remind America, with the fierce urgency of Sallie Mae herself. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises, and the previously told lies of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of plutocratic rule to the sunlit path of racial, economic, and social justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of its inequity, to the solid rock of equality, fiscal equilibrium, and true unhindered opportunity. Now is the time to make stability possible and justice a reality for all of people.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering Summer of the Middle Class and the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three was not an end, but a silhouette of a beginning. Placated by advancements, our forefathers whom had suffered so much injustice have seen so much progress; eyes seeing the withering layers of oppression, weary from diligence and perseverance. We of this generation can see clearly the undaunted rise of the veiled sentiments of boiled-over racism and from recent and distant history, we know that path to which it leads. Those who hope that the middle class and the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted the full extent of his citizenship, equal rights, fair sentencing and the middle class is not pressed down upon by the heavy boot of greed and fiduciary indignation. The earthquakes of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation, and the tsunamis of despair will drown the minions of class warfare littering their bodies into the riddled infrastructure of our crumbling nation, until the bright day of justice emerges from behind this cloud of unrest.

But there is something that I wish could be reiterated to my people. I wish I could say, “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.” But this is a nightmare, and you have drunk from the cup of bitterness and hatred for so long, washing down the burnt, mangled flesh of injustice that you have been force fed all of your life. I know not what to say but be prepared to be judged according to your actions and do what you must. This is not a call for war, this is acknowledgement of the war in which we are engaged. As we have seen in the passing of young black men within moments of encountering the police, as we have seen with the rain of gunfire through windshields at point blank range: this war will not be the one that determines who is right, this war will be the one that determines who is left.

Conducting our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline has limited our vision into the valley depths of institutional perversion and the unlawful creatures dwelling in the pit of corruption, wreaking the stench of false benevolence and slaughtering us as they rise up from their troth of evil and wrongdoing. I once believed our creative protest must not degenerate into physical violence, and that rising to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force would suffice. But after seeing so many of my brothers and sisters have their souls torn from their chests by the bullets of those sworn to both serve and protect them, after seeing many more of them placed into cages where their souls became compacted with evil, I ask, “Where is the soul, aggressors? Where is that soul that recognizes my humanity and treats me with equality?”

This is not a call for war, this is acknowledgement of the war in which we are engaged.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the middle class & Negro more than likely will not be contained to pure non-violent action, but one could dream that would solve it—even in this nightmare. Our past must not lead us to a distrust of all rich or white people, for many of our well-off or white brothers and sisters, as evidenced by their presence around the country, realize that their destiny is tied to our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone, nor will we fall alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead with equality shining as our north star.

We cannot turn back, to turn back means death, detainment, and at the very least, disenfranchisement.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as any person is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity, or their lives in any form. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro who has graduated from the ranks of inmate in jail cannot vote, and a Negro who has graduated from the ranks of collegiate study believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like mighty tears, upon the face of Lady Liberty herself.

I am not unmindful that some of you have this nightmare, and recognize the many great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells of the body and of the mind. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive, but with the knowledge that redemption favors those who fight for it.

We cannot walk alone, nor will we fall alone.

March forward to Mississippi, march forward to Alabama, march forward to South Carolina, march forward to Georgia, march forward to Louisiana, march forward to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, creating a future change.

Let us not wallow in the Valley of Despair, I say to you as you read this.

Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I have suffered a nightmare. It is a nightmare deeply rooted in the American dream. But I plan to bring it to an end. I plan to wake with the blazing light of prosperity shining like a sun on my face.

We are all living this nightmare that this nation is yet to rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

We live this nightmare with hopes that throughout the nation, the sons and daughters of former slaves and the sons and daughters of former slave owners will one day sit down together at the table of brotherhood and partake of the meal of true freedom, at the same sale price of citizenship.

We live the nightmare that even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, is little different than the state of New York with its quiet racism, classism, and refusal to hear the cries of the underserved.

We live in a nightmare where children live in a nation where they may be judged immediately by the color of their skin, which makes them “more of a threat.”

I have a vision today because my eyes are open and aware of the world around me. My faith is not built off of the innate goodness of mankind, for we have all witnessed its best and its worst, but the refusal to suffer injustice any longer.

We live in a nightmare where the media, with its vicious racists, with its former governors and political pundits, have their lips dripping with the words of false equivalences and nullification. One day I hope to see, in those same networks, little black boys and black girls searched for and mourned for as equally as with little white boys and white girls.

Sisters and brothers, I—we—have lived this nightmare.

I acknowledge the dream that one day, every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and glory shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is my hope. This is the faith that I awake with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mine of despair a mineral of progress. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful cipher of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work equally, to pray equally, to struggle equally, to go to jail equally, to stand up for freedom equally, knowing that we will all one day be equal.

This will be the day when all sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring equally from the halls of the many fraternal orders of police that seem to have shown professional restraint with many of our nations citizens, but a militaristic blood thirst in the engagement of our black brothers and sisters.

We live in a nightmare where children live in a nation where they may be judged immediately by the color of their skin, which makes them “more of a threat.”

Let freedom ring equally from the mighty misconceptions that swirl around the minds of our supreme court that believes it is remotely fair to value the voices of corporations as that of the people.

Let freedom ring equally from the high chorus of the “free market values” that reign in Colorado while scores of young black and brown brothers are placed into an overflowing jail system for interacting similarly with the source substance of those same markets.

Let freedom ring equally from the curvaceous slopes of California a state where a drought persists not only environmentally but judicially.

But not only that; let freedom ring equally from the blood soaked streets of Ferguson, where the people are policed by a department that has proven to hate them simply for the color of their skin.

Let freedom ring equally for the black and brown sisters who always stand on the front lines of equality, yet are often silenced by the internal yoke of patriarchy.

Let freedom ring from quiet deaths of a princess who slept into eternal existence at the hands of over zealous self proclaimed heros. Let freedom ring louder than the unheralded gunshots echoing in the halls of a staircase, let off with no rhyme, reason, or remorse.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring EQUALLY!

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring equally, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all people will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Then and only then will this nightmare be over.

By Desmond JaMaal

Desmond JaMaal is an activist, writer, doula, and scientist with a love for people and a joy for life. Raised in South Florida by way of Mississippi and the Bahamas, his life has been a mix of cultures that has blessed him with enough experiences to grow and love.