If Americans today possess less knowledge of history, we’ve at least got a better feel for it. Anniversaries of society’s most significant events are commemorated religiously and spiritedly, as they should be.
Few commemorations in the past half-century have been as momentous and meaningful as today’s 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Fifty years ago today, a segregated and sinful nation was in desperate need of moral leadership.
A rising generation, black and white, was rightfully rebelling against the status quo, and was increasingly – and justifiably – impatient with it. It had been 100 years since the Emancipation Proclamation; 15 years since President Truman outlawed discrimination in the military; a decade since Brown v. Board of Education outlawed school segregation; eight years since Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott; six years since the military-aided integration of Little Rock’s Central High; three years since the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-in; two years since the freedom riders began; and a year since James Meredith’s entrance into the University of Mississippi caused rioting and even death.
How can a nation founded on such high-minded, historic, Judeo-Christian principles have fallen so short of them for so long? What were people supposed to wait for, after the soaring promise of the Constitution had been denied so long? How long should an entire race be told to sit on their dreams and be forced to pine, in vain, for basic human freedom?
More practically, how to get that freedom?
This was a nation born of the willingness to fight and die for freedom, and there were militant voices in the 1960s. But in this case, there was a better, albeit painfully slower, path – one of nonviolent change.
It was the path laid out eloquently in King’s speech.
King did not shrink from calling for peaceful rebellion. He was not meek, warning that “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.”
Yet, he quickly cautioned African-Americans that, “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
He called for peace, but insisted on justice. In so doing, he could not have set a better tone for a turbulent time.
In fact, for both its eloquence and impact, scholars have named King’s speech the country’s best in all of the 20th century.
Nor was it merely a speech or a call to action. It was as powerful a closing argument as any jury has ever been witness to. He argued that America had signed a promissory note in its lofty founding documents – the promise of freedom, the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – but that, for African-Americans, it had turned out to be a bad check marked “insufficient funds.”
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said.
Fifty years later, most of what King called for has come to pass. Right was on his side, but now so is the law – and, from all appearances, most hearts. But his dream of a unified nation seems gloomily distant still, thanks in large part to a government that impedes individual initiative and media that too often deny progress and delight in division – which only eggs on the self-serving demagogues. The cup of bitterness and hatred runneth over.
This was not King’s dream, nor should it be our reality.
Let it be our dream that on every Aug. 28, this fervent commemoration would be more about victory than victimization – not about having to overcome, but about having done it.