Like King, our dream is for progress

August 28, 2013

On Aug. 28, 1963, a Wednesday, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped to a microphone in front of a quarter of a million people on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

The incredible crowd had assembled for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and no doubt sensed that something historic was in the air.

Fifty years ago, Jim Crow laws governed racial relations in the South. On their face, they called for separate but equal facilities for black and white, but while definitely separate they were nowhere near equal.

While not adhering to Jim Crow, conditions were little different in the North, where banks would not lend to black families trying to buy homes in white neighborhoods, and both unions and management worked to limit employment opportunities for blacks.

Nearly half the states prohibited interracial marriage and even the Supreme Court ruling that ordered public school desegregation in 1954 contained the unfortunate language “with all deliberate speed,” which gave many states license to drag their feet for years.

Drawing heavily from our founding documents and from the work of Abraham Lincoln, King said it was time to put words into action.

The Declaration of Independence, he said, was “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” be they black or white. All Americans were afforded the natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But in the 100 years since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the black race had remained economically and socially shackled, free from outright ownership perhaps, but certainly not free to enjoy the same benefits of citizenship that whites enjoyed:

“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.”

Enough was enough. King stressed the “fierce urgency of Now” and warned that it would be a mistake for lawmakers to think that the march alone would satisfy those who had been wronged.

King spoke of his dream for an America where black and white children would hold hands, a day when former slaves and slave owners would “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Within a year, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender or religious affiliation.

But laws are more easily changed than hearts. Racial tension and violence roiled through the end of the decade and into the next. The confluence of racial unrest and discord over the Vietnam War led to one of the more turbulent times in this nation’s history.

And yet, we came out stronger.

Trayvon Martin’s death, state rollbacks of voting rights and the racially based, visceral hatred of President Obama that exists in some circles show that we have yet to emerge from the rapids of social change.

But 50 years is the blink of an historical eye. The progress we have made in terms of racial relations in this time period is stunning. In other lands, hatreds have lasted for centuries. Yet here in America, each new generation notices skin color less and less.

We too have a dream, and it is for the day that, when introduced to a stranger, we will see a person, not a color. We dream for the day when color is irrelevant, where, in the words of King, people are judged on the basis of their character.

We mark mileposts on this journey, but there is no final destination. We must always be diligent against prejudice, no matter what the source. As humans we are imperfect; we will never be flushed entirely of our biases. But we can recognize them for what they are and strive to do better, just as we strive to overcome all of our weaknesses.

As King said, “(E)ven though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”

And that is why today we remember King not for the shade of his skin, but for the words he spoke and the great work he has done and continues to do for the hopes and dreams of all Americans.

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