In My Words: Dreaming of rainbows but cashing bad checks

Associate Professor Prudence Layne authored a newspaper guest column for the MLK Jr. holiday in which she reflects on the shared legacies of the slain American civil rights leader and his counterpart in South Africa, the late Nelson Mandela.

The following column appeared recently in the (Norfolk, Va.) Virginian-Pilot, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Greenville (S.C.) News, the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the Roanoke (Va.) Times, the Winston-Salem Journal, the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Sun News, the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News and the Gaston Gazette via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Viewpoints are those of the author and not Elon University.


Associate Professor Prudence Layne
Dreaming of rainbows but cashing bad checks
By Prudence Layne –

Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. never met. The former languished in a South African prison cell at the height of the latter’s influence during the United States’ civil rights movement.
By the time Mandela was freed in 1990, a precursor to his role as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, King had been dead more than two decades. Yet it was King’s memorable “I Have a Dream” speech that Mandela quoted in his own inauguration remarks and, later, at a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C.
With Mandela’s recent passing and the celebrations of what would have been King’s 85th birthday, it’s easy to compare the way the two men fought for social justice on opposites ends of the planet. But it’s also easy to reduce their legacies into palatable and digestible platitudes that erode the complexity of their lives, the brutality of their struggles and the magnitude of their sacrifices.
After all, in our remembrances of King and, now, Mandela, we often overlook to our detriment their calls not only for racial justice but also for economic justice.   
Mandela’s dream for South Africa to become a “rainbow nation” and King’s dream for his four children to play freely under the dawn of a similar rainbow in the United States remain unfulfilled as battles wage on for decent housing and jobs, equal education and the overall fair and equitable treatment of the poor and historically disenfranchised.
Poverty and racism, vestiges of the apartheid systems in both nations, reveal themselves most clearly in our educational and prison systems. The mass incarcerations of black men, who also record the highest rates of unemployment in both nations, create a systematically and permanently disenfranchised underclass that destabilizes all facets of society.
King and Mandela, both former political prisoners, understood intimately the fear of black men that still leads to squandered potential and prison languishment. South Africa’s prison economy is booming, ranking seventh in the world for total number of prisoners, and it claims the 24th highest ratio of prisoners to total population. It should come as no surprise that the United States holds the dubious distinction of leading the world in both categories.
King would be stunned to know that half a century after his “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” minimum mandatory sentences, drug policies, and the insidious effects of race and class have created what writer and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow” in her book of the same name.
This new system has transformed the language and methods of racial segregation that under the guise of “law and order” curtail the potential and freedom of the poor and historically marginalized. The dampened potential of millions of citizens in prison or caught up in systems of parole and probation have social and economic implications for us all.
We are reminded during this time of remembrance that the strength of any nation must be measured by the conditions of the least among us, including the poor and imprisoned.
Most South Africans, too, are cashing the “bad checks” King described in his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. High unemployment, unfair labor practices, and firmly entrenched class disparities support the gulf between rich and poor in both nations. The problem has not solely been one of the color divide, but also its twin cousin of oppression, the “bottom line,” the economic divide that continues to separate many whites from blacks and the “haves” from the “have nots.”
The night before he was murdered, in what many describe as his so-called “radicalization” period, King warned that “if something isn’t done and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”
Likewise, Mandela’s call to fight poverty resonates now more than ever. “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice,” he once said. “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
We must act to eradicate poverty by forging a commitment to strengthening our educational systems. The link between a solid educational foundation and social mobility has been long established; however, centuries later in the United States, and decades later in South Africa, the vestiges of the apartheid systems that created inherently unequal educations for the rich and the poor linger.
To eradicate poverty, reduce crime and improve the overall quality of the lives of citizens in these post-King and Mandela years, we must recommit our energies to creating a well equipped, trained and funded teaching corps as culturally sensitive, diverse and relevant as the curricula and approaches they deliver.
King and Mandela understood the twin roots of oppression. While death has ended their work, the struggle for economic justice must become the realities of our lives. We must recognize that the threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We must fight humbly and collectively, with an unbreakable commitment to human liberation.
Working together to topple oppression and injustice, we will always be strengthened in our resolve to reach the “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbows of which King and Mandela dreamed.
Prudence Layne is an associate professor of English & coordinator of the African & African-American Studies program at Elon University.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend ( in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.