When traveling to another country, it’s great to have the help of an experienced, knowledgeable, articulate tour guide. Sure you could do some research on your own, utilize your well-honed skills of observation, and draw your own conclusions. But for important, once in a lifetime travel, a seasoned tour guide reveals details you couldn’t see and realities you wouldn’t know on your own.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel. Certainly, I was familiar with the Bible and had studied some geography on my own, but visiting sights in Galilee and the city of Jerusalem with an experienced tour guide who knows the land and the Book and the culture better than me made the journey so much better.
When it comes to understanding issues of race, injustice, and poverty in America, I need the help of a tour guide to see things that I can’t see through the lens of my limited experiences and don’t understand from my own viewpoint. On my own, I just can’t see or even imagine what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “The Other America.”
Maybe you’re familiar with his infamous, “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963 or perhaps you’ve read his stirring “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written to white pastors critical of his protests. At Stanford University on April 14, 1967, however, Dr. King pulled back the curtain to reveal the realities of literally two different Americas.
“One America is beautiful for situation. And, in a sense, this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity…. In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions. And in this America millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.”
He continued, “But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair…. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Like an experienced tour guide to this other America, Dr. King points out the hopelessness of inequality, the realities of injustice, and the prevalence of widespread racism that I just can’t see through the lens of my own experiences. The America I grew up in says that racism is a personal problem. In the other America, to which Dr. King experienced, racism is systemic, judicial, and cultural.
In my America, we’ve all been created equal, have the same opportunities, and, if someone works hard enough, can be anything they want to be. In the other America, however, Dr. King says, “it’s a nice thing to say to people that you oughta lift yourself by your own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he oughta lift himself by his own bootstraps. And the fact is that millions of Negroes, as a result of centuries of denial and neglect, have been left bootless. They find themselves impoverished aliens in this affluent society.”
In the other America, there is not an even comparison to Irish, Italian, or other white immigrants. “The Negro came to this country involuntarily in chains, while others came voluntarily… No other racial group has been a slave on American soil… This society placed a stigma on the color of the Negro, on the color of his skin because he was black. Doors were closed to him that were not closed to other groups.”
I’m thankful, not only for the perspective disclosed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also for the personal friendships God has provided with faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who are Black, Asian, Latino, and Indian. They, too, serve as tour guides in my life to help me see the problems in our world and reflect a more accurate picture of the diverse image of God and His people, working together to make disciples and transform our communities and country.
“If we are to bring America to the point that we have one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” Dr. King says, “there are certain things that we must do.” Given the continued racial tensions we’re still experiencing over 50 years after his speech at Stanford University, there is still some work to be done. The work begins by hearing and believing the truth of what other experienced tour guides say about the state of our union.