Click on the title to this post to read a brief Associated Press article about Martin Luther King. By Deepti Hajela, as printed in the Boston Globe, the article quotes a number of scholars who remind the reader that, in his own day, Reverend King was much hated and feared. This is an important fact to keep in mind on this day in 2008. Today, an air-brushed, safe image of Martin Luther King, Jr is presented as every man’s hero. Those of us who lived during those days can recall that there were many Americans who disagreed with King, for many reasons. Recall that Reverend King was assassinated, not assumed into heaven.
I recall my parents, who, in theory, supported civil rights for black Americans, actually breathed a sigh of relief when they heard King was dead. They feared, as I think many white Americans did, the anger and frustration of black Americans. With a visceral panic, they watched the now-iconic Dream speech (link to American Rhetoric site with an audio-video recording and text of the speech). They focused, not on King’s immortal rhetoric, but on the huge numbers of dark faces on the Washington Mall. And they feared change.
What they overlooked was that King represented a firm stand for non-violence, in contrast to more radical leaders such as Malcolm X or the Black Panthers. And, though sympathetic to civil rights in the abstract, nevertheless, they were blind to the every day injustices and outrages experienced by black folk in pre-civil rights America. What they hoped for, I think, was a very gradual change, as the Supreme Court said in Brown vs. the Board of Education, “with all deliberate speed.” But from the point of view of people of color, those changes were a century overdue.
So, when you think about Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., today, consider the courage it took to stand up and push against both intransigent whites who supported Jim Crow and lynchings, but also the “silent majority” of whites (and some blacks as well) who feared upsetting the status quo. Consider that the principled stands he took cost him supporters on both sides – blacks who thought him too moderate as well as whites who feared his message of change, and mis-understood his message of non-violence.
And consider whether today we are closer to achieving Dr. King’s dream, that one day, his children would live in a country where they would be judged, not by the color of their skins, but by the content of their character. Do listen to his wonderful speech from the Lincoln Memorial. The man was a consummate speaker, who had deep roots in the oral traditions of his culture, and in the preaching traditions of American Baptists. Do not forget that King was a Christian first, and that he found in his faith and Mohandas Ghandi’s non-violence a tool to move the world.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.We have more work to do.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream 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."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
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.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."²
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.