Words do matter. Forty years ago the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ended a rally speech in Memphis on a note that was eerily prophetic, since it would turn out to be his final speech.
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life," he said, speaking without notes to the church rally on April 3, 1968. "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do G-d's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"
King was assassinated the next day. Like Moses, who led his people through the wilderness for 40 years, King died before his people reached the promised land.
Which leaves a special question for us black Americans 40 years after King's prophetic speech, have we reached the promised land?
And the answer is: It depends.
We, as a people have reached the promised land, if you believe the old James Brown song of the late 1960s: "I don't want nobody/ to give me nothing,/ Just open up the door, I'll get it myself." How far has the door opened up?
It's obvious that black billionaires like Oprah Winfrey and Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson have made it, thanks partly to hard-won opportunities that the civil rights movement opened up.
Yet how you feel about how well black America is doing can depend largely on where you sit on the nation's black-white, rich-poor cultural divide.
A young community organizer discovered that truism in 1985 on Chicago's South Side, where he came to work for a church-based group seeking to improve living conditions in high-crime, low-income neighborhoods.
One day the 24-year-old activist, a biracial Ivy League graduate, was trying to make a point to a prominent black pastor. Black problems were becoming more economic than racial, the organizer said. The minister wasn't buying it.
"Cops don't check my bank account when they pull me over and make me spread-eagle against the car," the pastor said. "These miseducated brothers, like that sociologist at the University of Chicago, talking about 'the declining significance of race.' Now, what country is he living in?"
The allegedly "miseducated" black scholar was William Julius Wilson. His 1978 book, "The Declining Significance of Race," was changing the national conversation about where black America was headed. It analyzed the impact of shifting economic forces that were affecting Americans of all races and called for economic remedies over race-specific ones.
But the pastor was a proponent of black liberation theology who responded to every one of the younger man's class-based views with race-based answers. Even the growing black middle class brought no comfort. "Life's not safe for a black man in this country, Barack," the pastor said. "Never has been. Probably never will be."
Yes, the young organizer was now-Sen. Barack Obama. It was his first encounter with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, as recounted in Obama's 1995 memoir, "Dreams From My Father."
The sharp contrast between their views takes on new significance, now that inflamatory snippets from Wright's sermons have turned Obama's 20-year membership in Wright's church into a political embarrassment. In a landmark Philadelphia speech Obama denounced Wright's remarks, but not Wright, and called for a new conversation on race.
Obama pointed out that the basis of black rage is real, but race relations in America are not static. America already has progressed enough to enable him to be the Democratic frontrunner for president. I'm sure King would agree.
At the time of his death, King was helping black Memphis garbage workers organize for better working conditions and the same respect that the city afforded white workers. In the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King was expanding his focus from fighting racism to fighting poverty.
Since then, black America has reduced its poverty rate from more than 50 percent to about 24 percent by the mid-1990s. Progress is being made by Americans of all races in living and working together. But not even a black president could do everything that needs to be done. The biblical promised land, it's important to remember, was not a place to relax. It was a place to work, provide for your family and achieve economic independence.
In that sense, I don't think we African Americans have reached the promised land. We're only beginning to see it from here.