Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. mounted the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered a powerful, visionary, speech. It wasn’t the only speech delivered the day of the March on Washington, but it is the one we remember. It was a moment in time that helped propel the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement. The March itself was meant to be a catalyst that would lead to furthering justice for the African American Community. It was meant to send a signal to Congress and to the White House that the time for action had come. Today, many are stirred by the vision of a world in which color of skin doesn’t determine one’s place in society, but the content of one’s character. As powerful as this dream was, and even though it helped lead Congress to pass important Civil Rights legislation, have we really reached the point where we can say that the dream is fulfilled?
You might answer: “well America elected an African-American as President, doesn’t that mean we’ve moved beyond race? I know that many in the Euro-American community (that is those who are white) would like to believe that we have moved into a post-racial society the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. The attempts in certain states to disenfranchise voters and the fact that jails and prisons are disproportionately filled with persons of color should at least raise a few red flags. The unemployment rate and high school dropout rate among persons of color is much higher than among whites. Why is this so? What barriers still exist? What attitudes mark our conversations?
Fifty years ago, in August 1963, I was but five years old. I didn’t hear the speech. I didn’t know anything about Martin Luther King. It probably wasn’t until well after Dr. King was assassinated (when I was ten) that I even learned of him. But, I have been paying attention since then.
I wish we could say that fifty years later the dream had come to fruition. That it hasn’t doesn’t mean that we should give up the pursuit of the dream. I wish full equality had been achieved. I wish that the churches didn’t continue to be segregated. I wish I could say that there wasn’t within me signs of racism. Is it overt? No. Is it there? I am certain it is. In what way does it exhibit itself? I would venture to say that it comes in the form of paternalism. It expresses itself in my tendency to believe that I am essential to the cause of freedom. That is not to say that I should abdicate my responsibilities, but it does mean entering into the conversation with all due humility. It means recognizing that I really don’t know what it’s like to live as a minority – to experience racial profiling or to be denied the right to vote or live as I please.
On this day we need to celebrate the vision that Dr. King laid out for us. We need to embrace it, but before we embrace the soaring refrain of freedom, we must remember that on that the speech was only a first step toward equality. Dr. King offered a dream, but he also issued a warning:
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
I suspect that we live some place in between this warning and the refrain of justice. Yes, if we are to reach the summit we must recognize that we've not yet reached that moment. But, on this day, it is appropriate that we join with Dr King and consider that vision:
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
If we’re willing to acknowledge how much further we have to go to reach the dream, then we can fully appreciate this message that resonates as much today as it did a half century ago.