“I believe that Dr. King would still have a dream today -- but it is quickly fleeting,” Coleman told the crowd, who had gathered on campus to commemorate the life and work of the great civil rights leader.
What has come to dominate the political discourse of the past 20 years -- the election of black political leaders, economic growth, increased diversity, political correctness and continued spending on war -- was not totally acceptable to King.
“The things that I’m going to say tonight are difficult,” Coleman forewarned his audience.
Even with the Great Recession officially over, people are still hurting and having trouble finding jobs. Unemployment, while at about 9.5 percent nationally, hit black Americans harder at 15.4 percent unemployment rate compared to the white unemployment rate of 8.5 percent. Without considering race, the divide between the poor and the rich has also steepened.
“I love for the halcyon days of the crisis that Martin Luther King Jr. faced,” the professor said. “We could be on the verge of a crisis that we don’t have the political, economic and spiritual wherewithal to solve.”
The loss of King’s message -- specifically in his last years -- against war spending and for the redistribution of wealth has had a subtle but profound impact. “We spend most of our time talking about the non-dreams of Dr. King,” he said.
While Coleman praised President Barack Obama, stating that “it’s wonderful to have a black president,” but he also pointed out the commander-in-chief’s shortcomings and relayed what King found important in politicians.
“King never endorsed a politician in his entire life,” Coleman explained. Some reasons that people voted for Obama didn’t have much to do with his race -- more his height, charm and good looks. “Martin Luther King specifically warned about star appeal.”
To the reverend, integrity was far more important than race or even political party, Coleman said.
Economic growth, specifically the idea that a strong economy means success for everyone as espoused by both Bill Clinton and Obama, runs counter to what King was trying to achieve.
Even in the heydays of the Clinton ’90s, the health of the overall economy never changed the disparity between black versus white poverty levels, black versus white wages or the black versus white unemployment rates.
“Right now, as I speak, 14 million people are out of work,” Coleman said. “But worse than that, our students here can’t find work.”
King’s idea that the Johnson administration should divert war spending toward social programs, specifically to right the injustice between blacks and whites, doesn’t get talked about as much now. What King wanted amounted to about $3.5 trillion in aid to help American minorities -- “almost the exact amount of reparations for slavery.”
“The sad part is, is that while most of us talk about King’s dream, if it were put on the ballot today, it would be defeated,” Coleman said. The disparity between rich and poor that exists now is pretty frightening. “Only Turkey and Mexico spend a lower percentage on social programs than the United States,” he said.
Ethnic diversity is also a bit misleading as a goal, the professor added.
In essence, diversity really means the mixing of disparate groups of people and different languages into a workable whole. That’s the sort of thing that happens any time two or more cultures meet and coexist. Exchange of ideas does not translate to betterment.
“Pastor King was not asking for diversity. He was asking for equality,” he said. “Diversity is not the dream.”
Martin Luther King would also most likely not enjoyed the idea of political correctness -- which essentially entails a speaker conforming his message to what his audience or society expects. King wanted to empower reform wings in both the liberal and conservative camps, or for people to start third parties dedicated to true change.
“Political correctness is not the dream,” Coleman said. “Whites are trapped in the Republican Party just as the blacks are trapped in the Democratic Party.”
Having the United States engaged in two wars, for which the money could be going towards a number of other projects, would not meet up with King’s ideals either. “Certainly, war was not part of Rev. King’s dream,” he said.
Coleman’s colleague Professor A.J. Williams-Myers also spoke in honor of King.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we lost a saint. We lost a brother. We lost a father. And most of all we lost a leader,” Williams-Myers said.
The black studies professor also reinforced the keynote speaker’s points about the need for progress in the future.
“We’ve come a long way and we have a long way to go to come to that celestial city,” he said, adding that the black community had lost almost every important hero with the last century. “Therefore, it is up to you to build a century where we can all hold hands and walk together.”
Williams-Myers urged his audience to live a life of peace and unity inspired by King.
Part of the Martin Luther King event also commemorated one of SUNY New Paltz’s own -- the late Professor Margaret Wade-Lewis.
Prior to the celebration, college students engaged in a letter-writing campaign to raise money for Wade-Lewis’s favorite causes -- the MRP Scholarship Fund.
“This year, the SUNY New Paltz campus community is dedicated to commemorating the memory of one of its most influential faculty members by adding her name to the MRP Scholarship Fund, for which she tirelessly advocated since 2000,” the students’ letter reads. “It was always a dream of Margaret Wade-Lewis to see the fund at $1 million and it has now become a mission statement of ours.”
That scholarship, now named for Wade-Lewis who helped found the college’s Black Studies Department, usually helps out about 25 students each year at SUNY New Paltz.
David Lewis, the late professor’s husband, was on hand during the Martin Luther King celebration, which also served to memorialize his spouse.
“That’s why I came, because I know who much she admired Dr. King and how much she cared for the students of New Paltz,” Lewis said. Part of Monday’s celebration involved students Kevin Cavanna and Samika Jeffery reading spoken word poetry about Rev. King. Outside of her normal duties in the Black Studies Department, Wade-Lewis also taught a spoken word poetry class and had an avid interest in it.
“I’m sure she would have been very pleased with the celebration,” Lewis added.