I encourage you to take a look at this image. It is obviously a significant crowd of people gathered in front of our country’s capital Washington D.C. These people marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in support of racial equality, and desegregation. All are present in anticipation of hearing him speak, but they are also standing to show solidarity. What the image doesn’t show you are races of people in the crowd. If you did not already know, the crowd was filled with men, women and children of all ages and all ethnicities. I chose this image because it blends them all together, separate but United as one. By not focusing on the details, the photograph shows the bigger picture: the sheer power of a group, while places less importance on individual differences. On Wednesday, August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke the memorable words “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.” The statement, “I have a dream” represents more than the words themselves; moreover, “I have a dream” represents the climactic moment of the entire racial Civil Rights Movement. Most importantly, it represents change.
Change is something we as humans naturally resist. While change may be good or bad it is inherently part of the human condition to create stability, order, and linear systems of life. We rely on this sort of thinking as our fundamental mechanism for understanding the world around us. We explain, categorize, and differentiate between good and bad, clean and unclean, right and wrong. We often times unconsciously engage in a group-mentality type of thinking, and may naturally assimilate and imitate those around us. We predominantly learn about the world around us from our families and peers. I will not attempt to define this kind of thought process as necessarily “good” or “bad”, however it is through this behavior that cultures have emerged. “Culture” is a fluid and abstract concept; it both defines and controls behavior of individuals. When we think of culture, we typically think of characteristics that are inherently unique to a certain group of people. This, however, brings a difficult challenge when attempting to analyze the concept of “American Culture”. The United States of America is unique in that it was founded in a foreign land, established on progressive principles, but comprised of borrowed cultures. It is an example of a marriage between stability and change. America is a country that was founded from a Revolution, and established as a land of freedom, however Americans themselves attempt to cling to “traditional” ways of life.
The main concepts I consider uniquely American are “American Individualism”—the idea that you are your own person and can choose who you want to be, and the concept of “The American Dream”—the idea that despite what circumstances you were born with, you can achieve success and happiness through your own actions and hard work and create your own destiny. Realistically speaking, this is not entirely true for every person that lives in America, but the hope and empowerment it creates is unprecedented. It is through this [American] Individualism and the American Dream that change occurs. The belief in entitlement to equal opportunity, the pursuit of happiness, and the drive for success—all of these feelings fuel progressive change. Ironically, while we have borrowed from so many other cultures, they too have borrowed from us. The Revolutionary War inspired the French Revolution; we established the separation of church and state and improved on the idea of a democracy. We sparked the Industrial movement, ended slavery, created the assembly line, established women’s rights, created new technology and the internet, visited space…the list goes on and on. We are now in a new age of globalization and post-modernity where thoughts and ideas are being shared so quickly that it is difficult to categorize what belongs to whom. Some of us would consider these changes to be beneficial, however no significant change ever occurs without conflict.
While it is generally accepted nowadays that all citizens are equal regardless of skin color, it once began as a simple idea. Dr. King was not the only person who believed in the idea, however he chose to pursue the American Dream and established himself as a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor in the Southern United States, but that didn’t stop him from breaking cultural norms in pursuit of change, and promoting non-violence. Although he died prematurely through an assassination and never lived to see his dream come true, he perpetuated the American dream to all citizens, regardless of skin color, gender, social “class” (in a socio-economic terms) or sexuality. He was a monumental figure—especially to the African American community—because he was living proof that African Americans could be as educated, articulate, and peaceful as any other citizen of the United States. He defied the stereotype of the “typical” black man and in the process, humanized a race that had been dehumanized and categorized as “inferior” since before the founding of the country. He united people for a common cause, and sparked change. Hortense Powdermaker additionally discussed this concept in his work After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South. Powdermaker noted, “To establish and maintain relations with the Negroes was not difficult. They were quick in sensing a person’s attitude, and appreciated a point of view which regarded them as fundamentally no different from other human beings…They wanted the outside world to know how they lived. Moreover, as one upper-class Negro put it, I studied the best of them as well as the worst” (Powdermaker, 203).
While we are equal under the law regardless of skin color, prejudice and discrimination groups still exist today in our country. Klu Klux Klans still exist all over America, as do groups of Neo-Nazis. In many places in the Southern United States, schools teach that the Civil War was about States Rights, [not slavery]. Some believe that women are inferior to men, and some think that being gay is a choice. While citizens can no longer legally be discriminated against because of gender or race, that doesn’t mean everyone is equal under the law, nor does it guarantee that all citizens will have the same beliefs. Women are not guaranteed the same pay as men, and many LGBT individuals are denied the right to marry the person they love. Many people who oppose changes like these are coming from a perspective of “traditional” values that they have learned from their peers and families. The contrast between old vs. new, young vs. old, or “traditional” vs. progressive is nicely demonstrated by Powdermaker in his description of youth in the 1930’s in the deep south; “To the younger generation, the church offers no such focus of activity and belief. Many of those between eighteen and thirty go to services but very few attend as regularly as do their parents. And those who go do so either in mechanical response to a habit of long standing or to please some older members of the family. Religion and the church seem to have no organic place in their interests…Like the youth of many rural communities, they have responded to outside influences more than to the example and precepts of their parents, so that the difference defined by age groups is less a matter of age as such than of current history, and of increasing contact with the outside world” (Powdermaker, 215).
Even after decades of social change, many people are born into poverty and don’t have access to equal quality education; due to limited resources they may not be able to overcome their socioeconomic conditions, and may not achieve the American Dream. As the economy changes, the American Dream seems to be harder to reach. While the “Dream” may not be as easily attainable, the drive it inspires has ceased to diminish. As times get tougher on all Americans, people are holding to their beliefs even harder. As long as this country is “the land of the free,” Americans will fight for what they believe is their freedom. The conflict between change and stability inevitably causes tension, which leads to more conflict. More conflict will eventually lead to more change. Our history [which is comparably young compared to most cultures] is comprised of periods of stability, marked by periods of rapid change. Our peers, parents and our respective subcultures shape our beliefs and ideas, but we are also influenced by the array of cultures and ideas around us. While we may try to differentiate ourselves from others, whether it may be gender, race, socioeconomic status, or sexual identity, we as Americans should take a step back and try to remember that we are all “others”.
While immigrants or minorities may experience “otherness,” perhaps Americans as a whole also experience this feeling due to the lack of a generalized culture. Perhaps change poses such high levels of conflict in the United States because our own culture is based loosely on a collection of things borrowed. We are a united group of different states, with different laws, populations, and subcultures. We have very few things to call ours, yet many of us take great pride in being an “American” without really understanding what that means. We, as a culture, are a Hybrid, which many refer to as “The Melting Pot”. America is a machine, thriving and producing, globalizing and powering through global and internal change. But what makes us inherently “American” is that we are comprised of two opposites—we thrive on change but rely on stability… and it is the marriage of these two factors that keep this machine running.
March on Washington for Martin Luther King Junior and the Civil Rights Movement