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An essay donated by Alton C. Thompson

Avoiding human exinction by radical social change.
Was Martin Luther Kings Jr.'s dream the wrong one?

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While I was in secondary school, I was on the debate term for two years. My partner/friend was Weston Waldo Peterson 1 I never, ever won a debate (!). I attribute this to two factors. First, both of us have a Norwegian heritage . Therefore(?) being independent-minded, even though we were both on the same team, I would argue one position, and he another! Second, I don’t recall ever arguing with any degree of passion.

I don’t regard my miserable experience at debating as a total “bust,” however. As a debater, at times I would be required to argue for the affirmative; at other times the negative. This taught be that there are at least two sides to every issue.

Perhaps it was that experience, long ago that suggested to my unconscious mind today that I should watch The Great Debaters again. It is a movie directed by, and starring, Denzel Washington, that includes a cast of other fine actors, including Denzel Whitaker, who played James Farmer, Jr. 2 who, in real life, went on to found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Prior to placing the DVD into the player, I had no recollection of what the movie was about. But once the movie started, I instantly recalled major portions of it, and soon became engrossed in the story. While watching the movie, however, my mind started to recall some events of my own past that were related to the movie, so that I was simultaneously watching the movie and jotting down points to bring into this essay.

Among these points were my early church experiences. My parents had both been raised in Holden Lutheran Church in Mt. Morris, Wisconsin 1 My dad told me that early in their marriage they had attending a service of a traveling evangelist in nearby Wautoma. This caused them to decide that the church of their youth was too “dead.” They got together with several other young couples, and started the Assemblies of God church in Wautoma. 3

Two things stand out in particular about my early attendance at that church. First, singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” (See if you can watch this video without tearing up! I can’t!) Second, on at least on one occasion, a black missionary from Africa visited our church. I learned from my church attendance -- and from my wonderful parents as well -- that one must NEVER look down on ANYONE, regardless of race, nationality, sex, etc. This was before sexual orientation became an issue, but when it did, I had been prepared for it by my church attendance and my parents’ teaching.

My early experience brought me in contact with no blacks, but did bring me into contact with others. First, because there were many lakes in the area where I grew up, it was a vacation spot for residents of Milwaukee, Chicago, and other Midwestern cities. As a consequence, I occasionally had some contact with “city slickers” of my age. Second, the county in which I lived -- Waushara County -- has very sandy soil, ideal for the growing of cucumbers. 4 Not surprisingly, then, many of the dairy farmers in the county added cucumbers to their array of crops grown, and used migrant workers to provide help, especially at harvest time.

The father of my debate partner/friend was a farmer. He was one of the farmers who grew cucumbers, and employed migrant workers. All of the workers had homes in Texas or thereabouts, and they all had ancestry in Mexico. My friend’s father was a very kind man, and he and his family treated the migrant workers who worked for them as family. I spent two summers during the harvest season helping operate their sorting machine, and I still remember having some contact with the migrant workers who were referred to as “Mexicans.” In fact, I still remember the name of a beautiful girl -- Rosa Zuñica -- who was a member of one of the families that returned, year after year, to my friend’s father’s farm.

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My point here is that I was brought up to look beyond one’s skin color, etc., and to look, instead, to another’s character. I was also taught to be accepting of others, even though they might have negative personality traits, in the hope that by treating them well, one might contribute to their development as better humans.

While living during my college years in Wisconsin, I mostly came in contact with fellow whites. When, however, I moved to North Carolina to attend the University of North Carolina (for an M. A. in Geography), I came in contact with a fair number of blacks. Not so much as fellow students, however, as individuals having menial jobs on campus: janitors, workers in the cafeteria, etc. Most of my fellow students demonstrated little concern for the blacks in our “community,” with the exception of one young man from Pennsylvania, who was very vocal about how blacks were being treated. He was even more vocal regarding how a Christian man from India had been treated. (Perhaps it was because this Pennsylvanian was gay, as I learned later, that he was sensitive to racial prejudice.) Also, while there I had a roommate from Charlotte, North Carolina, and I was surprised that he was more sensitive to how blacks were being treated than the northern whites tended to be.

Unlike my fellow student -- and friend -- who was gay, I have never been an activist of any sort. I have never, for example, been involved in protest marches. Not so much because of any lack of sympathy for those being discriminated against or otherwise mistreated, however, but because my personality leads me in another direction (to be disclosed shortly). I can watch a movie such as The Great Debaters and feel strong anger when I see blacks -- such as the elder James Farmer -- being humiliated; 5 and can feel both anger and deep sorrow in viewing a black who had been lynched. But such feelings lead me to cogitation rather than to activism.

For example, while watching the movie I began not only thinking about my own early life experiences. I was also reminded of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech 6 -- which is the reason for this essay’s title. In that speech King said, among other things:

"I have a dream that one day this nation will 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.' I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood."

And:

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

As a USan (i.e., citizen of the United States 7), it makes me proud that King had the courage to say these words. How, then, can I have the audacity to raise the question -- “The Wrong Dream?” -- in my title?

My answer explains why I have never been an activist. Over the years, and especially since leaving academia in 1976, I have read widely. Leaving academia gave me the freedom to pursue my interests wherever they might lead. Some time ago (beginning when, I do not recall) I became interested in utopian literature. The term “utopia” came from Sir Thomas More’s novel with that title). 8 I became interested in efforts to realize utopia -- such as those of Robert Owen, and those inspired by the ideas of Charles Fourier [9] and Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon. [10]

What is of especial note about the “utopian socialists” -- as contrasted with Marxian ones -- is that their approach was communitarian. This meant in practice that they were not so much interested in reforming society, in a conventional sense, but in transforming it -- into one within which the community was the fundamental social unit. Having an orientation to societal system change, their “dream” was different from that of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was to achieve something beyond mere “tinkering.” It was a thoroughgoing overhaul to the very nature of the society!

I find it of interest that prior to the Civil War in the United States there was a black communal movement. The purpose behind this movement was rather different from that associated with, for example, Robert Owen. Their purpose was not to serve as steps toward the end of societal system change but, rather, to prepare their residents for living in the Larger Society. Although I find this purpose disappointing, I also find it understandable.

The communal movement is still with us, but is largely invisible.

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I left academia in 1976. By 1984 (!) I had developed my own approach to societal system change -- also of a communitarian nature. I presented my ideas in “Ecotopia: A ‘Gerendipitous’ Scenario.” At that time the problem of global warming was of minor concern. Guy Callendar had been issuing warnings about the problem in the late 1930s. Over the past few decades, climate scientists have been researching this matter thoroughly. However, given that our media are commercial enterprises, the researchers' findings have largely been ignored. The public, reinforced by misleading advertising, remains largely ignorant about the matter.

If Martin Luther King, Jr., in giving his famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech had oriented it toward the desirability -- and even necessity -- of societal system change, and if that message been acted upon, it’s conceivable that our society would now be not only very different, but much better in many different ways -- e.g., much more egalitarian than it is now.

Unfortunately, he did not. He should not be blamed for this.

Thus it is not at all surprising that John Davies, writing last year for the Arctic News blog, started his article with the following startling words:

"The world is probably at the start of a runaway Greenhouse Event which will end most human life on Earth before 2040."

Professor Emeritus Guy McPherson, in commenting on that posting, has said that Davies:

"... considers only atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, not the many self-reinforcing feedback loops described below."

Indeed, in an earlier (2012) posting) Prof. McPherson had said:

"A decade ago, as I was editing a book on climate change, I realized we had triggered events likely to cause human extinction by 2030."

As a result of the rather strong possibility of near-term extinction, I now regard my confident “scenario” of 1984 as but a dream.

No one, during the past 60 years, has delivered a speech as powerful as that delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. Yet, looking back from the vantage point of 2014, it was the wrong speech! As a minister, the concept of “salvation” was one that was a familiar one to King. However, the salvation that we humans need in 2014 is salvation from extinction, not the sort of salvation associated with religion (i.e., the “salvation of souls").

There is, of course, no reason to blame Dr. King for not proclaiming a need for societal system change. Let me make that point perfectly clear. What I am saying, rather, is that it is unfortunate that the most important speech delivered in the past 60 years was not calculated to contribute to the possible salvation of our species from extinction. Had it been, we humans might not now be facing extinction.

But we are, apparently! This likely possibility gives me no sense of peace . It makes me regret that I have had children (who themselves have children -- five grandchildren to date).

As a final point: I feel obligated to add that I disagree with the premise that seems to underlie The Great Debaters -- that debates can accomplish something.

I agree that debates can change how people think, and therefore act. However, humankind got “off the track” with the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago. Although it has long been recognized (if but dimly) that some sort of “return” has been necessary to solve our various problems -- a thesis implicit in the utopian literature -- that insight has not been acted upon to the degree necessary for our continued survival as a species.

Debates may result in minor “reforms” of a society. However, what has been needed, over the centuries, is societal system change of the right sort. That is, change that would not only have resulted in a high level of well-being for all people, but change that might have permitted our species to go on indefinitely. Formal debates are typically structured so that the question of the need for societal system change does not arise, for the simple reason that it cannot arise!

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Endnotes and references:

  1. Weston died over a decade ago, and I was asked to deliver the eulogy, which I did, of course. The funeral service was held at the Mt. Morris (Wisconsin) Holden Lutheran Church, which my ancestors had helped establish during the pastorate of Rev. Nils Brandt, 1858 – 1863.

  1. Junior’s father, James Farmer, Sr., was president of tiny Wiley College during the period depicted by the movie. James, Sr., had obtained his Ph. D. from Boston University -- from which our older daughter obtained a Masters in Theology recently. (I should add here that I have been watching The African Americans off and on today, September 7, 2014).

  1. By the time I was in secondary school, my parents had joined the Conservative Baptist church in nearby Wild Rose. However, I am not ashamed to admit that my early exposure to the Assemblies of God church -- e.g., its charismatic aspect -- has had a lasting impact on my thinking, about religion in particular. I believe that this “comes through” in, e.g., my Addressing Our Uncertain Future.

  1. While my family lived in Mt. Morris, we lived on a 4-acre parcel of land, and had all of it under cultivation -- especially in cucumbers. We children picked cucumbers to earn money to buy our clothes and other necessities, with a little left over for “luxuries.”

  1. We citizens of this country too often forget that slavery is an important part of our past -- with many of our early leaders (e.g., George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) having been slave owners, with the South’s economy being dependent on slavery, slave trading (e.g. Franklin & Armfield) being a major business, and Northern and British banks playing a major role in financing slavery.

  1. King’s dream differed rather substantially from that of, e.g., Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X.

  1. Given that there is a South America and Central America in addition to North America, it would be arrogant of me to call myself simply an American.

  1. A comprehensive discussion of this literature is given in Frank E. and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979).

  1. Ceresco, in Wisconsin, started as a Fourierist community. The site is now occupied by the city of Ripon, which claims -- without embarrassment, evidently -- to be the birthplace of the Republican Party.

  1. Ironically, when I sat down tonight (September 7, 2014) to eat a bowl of soup, and turned the television on, in my “surfing” I landed on the Fox channel (which I don’t normally watch), and a new “reality” program, Utopia, was just starting!

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Al Thompson retired, in 2014-JUL, from an avionics firm in Milwaukee, WI.  He may be contacted using this email address:  ivor5367@gmail.com.

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Originally posted: 2014-SEP-26
Last updated 2014-SEP-26
Author:
Alton C. Thompson
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