Martin Luther King’s Dream: A Dream Come True? Or, a Dream Deferred?

The birthday of the foremost civil rights activist in the United States – Martin Luther King – will be honored with a federal holiday this year on January 17.

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has become one of the greatest in American history.

“I have a dream,” he said in that inspirational 1963 speech, “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.”

This year – 43 years after the assassination of that great American hero – we must reflect on whether or not the dream Martin Luther King lived and died for has come true, or whether it has been deferred for the estimated 41.8 million black residents living in the United States.

On the plus side:  The United States now celebrates its first African-American president.  More blacks are getting higher educations.  According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 2.5 million black college students in the fall of 2008.  This was roughly double the corresponding number from 25 years earlier.

The number of black-owned businesses totaled 1.9 million in 2007, up 60.5 percent from 2002.  And, according to the Census Bureau, receipts for black-owned businesses in 2007 were $137.4 billion, up 55.1 percent from 2002.

But poverty rates for blacks, according to the Census Bureau, stood at 25.8 percent in 2009.

“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King said, “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.’”

African-Americans have, undeniably, made progress in achieving true equality in mainstream American society.  But what do you think?  Has the dream of Martin Luther King been realized, deferred, or is it simply a work in progress?

U.S. Winter Holidays: New Year

Winter in America is full of religious and cultural celebrations that highlight the many heritages and interests of the American people.

The New Year represents new beginnings and the hope for better times.  Parties, concerts and events of all kind mark the end of the old year and the promise of fresh possibilities with the new.  Although many of these activities are private or require a paid ticket, others are open to all.

A relatively recent addition to heralding in the New Year is the “First Night” community celebration.  The city of Boston in Massachusetts takes the credit for launching the first First Night celebration in 1976.  Artists there sought an alternative way to party on New Year’s Eve – one that didn’t involve alcoholic drinks and rowdiness.   The idea was to bring in the New Year celebrating a community’s local culture via music, dance, comedy, art, fireworks, parades, etc.

First Night fireworks in Boston

First Night celebrations have become popular in cities all across the United States because they involve activities the entire family can safely enjoy.  And since most end at midnight on December 31, the whole family can get home in time to get enough sleep to greet January 1 fresh and minus a hangover.  These advantages even inspired the establishment of an organization to help guide communities in developing their own First Night celebrations – First Night USA.

Technically speaking, “First Night” isn’t really the first night of the New Year – that would be the night of January 1.  But, who cares?  First Night celebrations transcend individual differences and invite everyone to welcome the New Year by reconnecting with their communities and each other!

The Obamas Vacation in Hawaii

President Obama joined his wife and daughters in Hawaii late last week to celebrate Christmas and participate in the annual Obama family vacation. The president was born in Hawaii and often returns there for some rest and relaxation.

In general, the Obamas keep a low profile while vacationing on the island of Oahu, residing in a private vacation home and protected by the Secret Service. Nevertheless, the family has made some public appearances.

For example, President Obama has been spotted playing golf as well as taking his daughters to the beach. The president, his family, and a group of friends who have joined them on their vacation were also seen ordering shave ice – a frozen Hawaiian treat – at local shop Island Snow. Other vacation activities have included basketball, bowling and morning workouts.

On Christmas Day President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visited the Marine Corps Base at Kaneohe Bay. The first couple shook hands and took pictures with U.S. Marines and their families who had gathered at the base for Christmas dinner. This is the third year in a row the Obamas have stopped by the base during their Christmas vacation.

On Sunday the president and Mrs. Obama returned to the Marine base with daughters Malia and Sasha to attend services at Michael’s Chapel. The family joined the rest of the crowd in singing during the service.

U.S. Winter Holidays: Epiphany

Winter in America is full of religious and cultural celebrations that highlight the many heritages and interests of the American people.

Epiphany, once a holiday of note, especially in the American South, is struggling to stay alive these days in most areas of the United States.

Epiphany always falls on January 6, the 12th day after Christmas, and it celebrates the visit of the three kings or wise men to the Christ Child. Today, most Americans have their Christmas decorations packed away by January 6.  But when the United States was mostly agricultural, people had more time to celebrate throughout the 12 official days of the Christmas season, and weddings were common during this time frame.  George Washington, for example, married Martha Dandridge-Custis on January 6, 1759.

Hispanics in the United States continue to celebrate Epiphany with parties and parades in many areas of the country, since it is traditionally the Three Kings, not Santa Claus, who bring Christmas presents to their children.

But the stronghold for Three Kings Day celebrations is in New Orleans, Louisiana, because it is there that Epiphany kicks off carnival season, which culminates in the world-famous Mardi Gras parades on the Tuesday before the beginning of Lent.

King Cake, New Orleans-style

In a tradition that dates back to the 18th Century, Epiphany is marked with the appearance of “King Cakes” – special cakes that contain a trinket or plastic baby representing the Baby Jesus.  Whoever gets the piece of cake with the token is required to supply the next King Cake.  King Cake parties are common throughout carnival season.

The cakes are decorated with sugars in the colors of Louisiana’s carnival season:  purple, representing justice; green, representing faith; and, gold, representing power.

Do you celebrate Three Kings Day where you live?

Photo Friday

This Christmas tree located in Washington, DC’s Union Station is a gift from the people of Norway to the people of the United States. It is part of the station’s “Norwegian Christmas” display, and represents Norway’s gratitude to the United States for its assistance during and after World War II.

(State Dept./Jane K. Chun).

President and First Lady Meet, Support Local Children

Before leaving Washington, DC to celebrate Christmas with their own children Malia and Sasha, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have been busy helping and meeting with local youngsters and their families.

Earlier this week Mrs. Obama visited a Washington, DC children’s hospital to talk with children in the intensive care unit. She met with their families, doctors and nurses as well before reading “The Night Before Christmas” to an audience of kids in the hospital’s atrium.

Her husband took his own turn reading to local students today at Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. President Obama read his best-selling children’s book, “Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters,” as well as “The Night Before Christmas.” The president told the children:

“One of the things about Christmas obviously is getting presents, having stockings full, spending time with your family and eating good stuff. But part of the Christmas spirit is also making sure that we’re kind to each other and we’re thinking about people who are not as lucky as we are. So I hope that all of you, even as you’re having a lot of fun during the holidays, whether it’s Christmas or Hanukah, I want to make sure that all of you are also thinking about how can you guys be nicer to each other and think about people who have less than you do.”

Also today, Mrs. Obama volunteered at Washington, DC Toys for Tots distribution center where she helped members of the U.S. Marine Corps organize toys that will be given to needy children in the area. The Toys for Tots program has distributed more than 400 million toys to more than 188 million needy children over the past 62 years. It is run by the U.S. Marine Corps reserve, and operates across the United States.

U.S. Winter Holidays: Hanukkah

Winter in America is full of religious and cultural celebrations that highlight the many heritages and interests of the American people.

Hanukkah – known as “the festival of lights” – is a significant winter holiday for Jewish Americans. Based on the lunar cycle, Hanukkah can fall anywhere between November 28 and December 26.

Hanukkah marks the second century BCE victory of the Jews in Israel over their oppressors.  Lighting the eight candles of a menorah (candelabra) was an important part of services in the ancient holy temple in Jerusalem.  But when the Jews liberated their temple from the hands of their enemies, they found only enough pure oil to light the menorah for one day. Miraculously, that oil burned for eight days and nights.

Today, Jews remember that victory and the miracle of the oil by eating traditional foods fried in oil during the eight days of the Hanukkah celebration.  And menorahs are lit in the privacy of homes across the United States as well as in public places.  For example, each year a huge National Menorah standing on the White House ellipse is lit with great ceremony.  It became an annual tradition starting in 1979 with President Jimmy Carter.

This year, in addition to lighting the National Menorah, a much smaller menorah – but one of especially poignant significance – was lit inside the White House.  Retrieved from the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina, it was donated for the annual White House Hanukkah ceremony by the Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans – one of the very few items from the congregation that survived the 2005 devastation.

It seems the menorah continues to symbolize from century to century the perseverance of the Jewish faith over all adversity.  And to all Americans, the light of the menorah provides a reassuring symbol of hope in the dark days of winter.

U.S. Winter Holidays: Christmas

Winter in America is full of religious and cultural celebrations that highlight the many heritages and interests of the American people.

Christmas – as the name implies – commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ and is an important holiday to all Christians.  In the United States, however, Christmas is a grand melding of the cultural traditions of every ethnic and religious group that settled here.

For example, the Mormon Temple in Washington D.C. welcomes all to see its spectacular Festival of Lights featuring some half-million sparkling Christmas lights and life-size Nativity scene.

The Washington National Cathedral (Episcopal) offers each year a display of hundreds of crèches from around the world.

The Christmas traditions of the Moravians, a Protestant sect that found refuge from persecution when they settled in North Carolina, attract many visitors to Old Salem Historic District, where samplings of special Moravian Christmas treats such as Moravian ginger cookies and Lovefeast buns can be had.

Each year there is a Russian Winter Festival – complete with Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden – held at the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C., renowned for its collection of Russian artwork.Norway shares its Christmas traditions with Norwegian Christmas at Union Station in Washington, D.C. with a gift of a Christmas tree and concert.

A look at Christmas past can be had at Monticello, President Thomas Jefferson’s home, which is located on a mountain top near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Christmas in the United States also offers many opportunities for many to reconnect with history.

At Mount Vernon in Virginia, President George Washington’s home, visitors can get a bit of a feeling for the holidays as the first president might have experienced them.  Monticello, the Virginia home of President Thomas Jefferson, also strives to give visitors a look at holidays past.

In Wisconsin, a state that welcomed many immigrants, especially in the 19th Century, visitors can experience (weather permitting) the Christmas traditions of many different cultures, including the Bohemians, Irish, Finns, Germans, and Belgians at the outdoor museum known as Old World Wisconsin.

The list of historic and religious sites in the United States that offer some special Christmas display or event is endless.  And the best thing about it is that everyone is welcome to enjoy!

U.S. Winter Holidays: Kwanzaa

Winter in America is full of religious and cultural celebrations that highlight the many heritages and interests of the American people.

Perhaps no winter holiday celebrated in the United States is as quintessentially American as Kwanzaa, the first specifically African-American holiday.

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga (born Ronald McKinley Everett), an African-American author, political activist, and university professor in California. The holiday, celebrated December 26 through January 1, took root quickly during an era marked by the African-American struggle for full civil rights and equality.

A cultural but not a religious holiday, Kwanzaa – from the Swahili word for first fruits of the harvest – reaffirms the connectedness of all African Americans to their origins in Africa and celebrates family, community and African culture.

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa, the family lights one candle to remember the following principles and goals: Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); and Imani (Faith).

Kwanzaa is also celebrated on a national level. The American Museum of Natural History, for example, will hold a daylong event celebrating Kwanzaa. The Baltimore Museum of Art will give instructional classes on the principles of Kwanzaa and teach activities such as making an African headdress or fly whisk. And the Black History Museum in Alexandria, Virginia will offer instruction on how best to incorporate Kwanzaa into family holiday traditions

In 2008, a documentary film about Kwanzaa was released entitled The Black Candle. Featuring Maya Angelou, a renowned African-American poet, author and activist, the film attempts to raise awareness among all Americans regarding the impact of Kwanzaa on the African-American spirit.

It’s Winter! Let’s Celebrate!

Winter solstice – the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere – has been marked by celebrations for centuries as mankind anticipates a return of longer days, the warmth of spring and the new life it brings.

Astronomically, the “rebirth of the sun” occurs December 21 or 22. But this astronomical event has been layered with deep religious and cultural meanings.  Nowhere is the variety of heritages more evident than in the United States, a nation of immigrants.

Over the next few weeks, “By the People” will take a look at some of the ways in which mid-Winter is observed in the United States.

Learn more:  Winter Holidays Mirror America’s Diversity

Winter solstice is still celebrated at Stonehenge in England. Built thousands of years ago, Stonehenge may have helped ancient peoples predict solstice, equinox and other celestial events important to them.