Wednesday, August 28 will be the fiftieth anniversary of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. The speech was the culmination of a massive demonstration in Washington D.C., during which 250,000 people gathered on the mall, in peaceful assembly, to listen to speeches and music, to support one another's vision of justice and equality, to be together in a kind of universal brotherhood we've rarely seen, before or since. It was a hot day--late August days in D.C. usually are--but many of the men, white and black and every other race, were wearing ties, some jackets. The women were in dresses. This was an occasion; people who were there have never forgotten it, and they knew that day that they wouldn't.
Dr. King's career was singularly dedicated toward the goals of justice and equality, and taken as a whole it was one of the most successful of its kind. But that single speech, on that August afternoon, was probably his most influential single act. The demonstration was a huge success, and the speech gave Dr. King a new gravitas, a new importance as the moral voice of a generation of Americans.
Photograph via TheSoundsofHIstory.com
I am, admittedly, a middle class white guy, with all the perks and privileges thereof that our society bestows. I haven't experienced first-hand the kind of discrimination that Dr. King had, and that African-Americans even today still do. I've paid attention to racial issues, and have written about them in fiction and nonfiction alike. I've been nominated for a Glyph Award, which is an award given to comic book creators for producing work that explores the black experience.
But none of that obscures the fact that my life experience has been different than that of black Americans, in Dr. King's time or today. As President Obama said, after the verdict in the case of Trayvon Martin's killing, "There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often."
Dr. King came to Washington because he understood a fundamental fact of American life. Racism cannot be legislated away. Racism lives in the heart, and the heart is not subject to law. But behavior is, and if the law could be changed, King reasoned, then even though people might still harbor hatred of others, those others--the objects of their hatred--could not be made to suffer unnecessarily at the hands of those who hate.
Further, Dr. King understood that the states were not the place to seek change on the level he wanted. Many states were, at that time, hotbeds of discrimination. Slaves had officially been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, but through much of the country, black Americans were still, a century later, far from full citizens. Blacks faced ridiculous "literacy tests" at polling places, and failure--as determined by the white poll workers challenging them--meant their votes could not be cast. Schools were segregated, public transportation was segregated, there were neighborhoods in which black people could not buy or rent homes. Jim Crow was a fact of life.
Beyond the discrimination allowed by state and local laws, private businesses were allowed to discriminate at will. Stores could refuse to sell goods to black customers. Lunch counters and restaurants could refuse to serve them. Providers of various services, from plumbers to lawyers, could deny them their skills.
These ideas seem strange, to the 21st century mind. But this is not ancient history. I started school in 1961, in France, at an American-run school serving the children of the American military and diplomatic communities. I had come from a supposedly integrated "new town" suburb of Chicago, but if there were African-American students in my kindergarten or my neighborhood, I don't remember them. I do remember being surprised by the presence of black kids in first grade. The Army had been fully integrated since President Truman ordered it on July 26, 1948, and as a result of that, there were black kids in my school. It took me a while to get used to that, but I did.
By third grade, I was in an international school, run by the Strategic Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), and where the kids came from all the NATO countries, so I was not only exposed to children of different races, but many different nationalities. I like to think that these early experiences helped form the person I would become.
What Dr. King understood then was a lesson we still struggle with today: When public laws and private practices allow discrimination, it takes bigger, broader laws to set things right. Dr. King knew that if he had the federal government on his side, because of the way the Founding Fathers had set up our system of government, federal law would trump state law, and would prevent the states from enforcing blatanty racist legislation.
In his speech that day, Dr. King said, "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."
He believed in the promise of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and he refused to settle for the idea that the framers meant for the concepts of freedom and liberty and equality described therein to pertain only to land-owning white males.
As a dear friend reminded me recently, the way we talk about things affects the way we think about them. Dr. King knew that racism couldn't be banned by law, but he knew that if behavior changed and language changed, then racism would have an uphill battle. Laws could protect the rights of minorities, could change behavior, and public opinion could change language. By taking his speech to the heart of America's capital city, he could influence both.
He knew change would not come fast. He knew that he would not see the change he wanted come to pass in his lifetime. It still hasn't. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were all passed after Dr. King's speech, and they are the tentpoles of the Civil Rights movement. Things are better, but we're not there yet. As Michele Norris writes in TIME this week (subscription required), "Since the mid-1970s, the unemployment rate for blacks has consistently been roughly double the unemployment rate for whites. Even the concept of wealth is relative when assessed in black and white terms. The median wealth of black families in which the head of household graduated from college is less than the median wealth for white families whose head of household dropped out of high school."
Partway through his speech, Dr. King set aside his prepared text and began speaking from the heart. To listen to his speech is to hear a remarkable moment in our history. The cadence, the power, the poetry of his words remains as stirring today as it was at the time, when it was broadcast on radio and TV from coast to coast.
Dr. King pushed his papers to the side, and he said:
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."
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.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom 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!
People who started school much later than me had a very different experience. It was a while before all schools were integrated, but the writing was on the walls. There wouldn't be black schools and white schools anymore, and kids wouldn't grow up never having known anyone whose skin was different from theirs. There wouldn't be drinking fountains for whites and separate ones for blacks. We made a better America, one more in keeping with the spirit of the nation's founding. Together, we made an America that could, in significant ways, be judged by the content of her character, and judged well.
It's hard to know whether Dr. King would be surprised by the resurgence of racism--not just on a personal level, but on an institutional level, racism emanating from statehouses across the land--we've seen since the 2008 election of our first black president. It's a distressing trend. I like to think that it's a last-ditch reaction to that election, and to the fact that the country is changing, demographically, in so many ways. And once the people reacting that way get used to the reality, and see that it isn't as frightening as they think, they'll calm down and we can make progress again toward equality, toward justice. We can move forward together, instead of seeking out what divides us and clinging to that.
I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a liberal. Here's what dictionary.com says:
That sounds pretty close, to me. Liberals, and Dr. King was one, believe that the federal government can step in and act on important matters when the states can't or won't; indeed, that the federal government has an affirmative duty to do so. Only the power vested in that government can act on the necessary scale to stop discriminatory behavior, and only by stopping that behavior do we reach a place, as a society, where discrimination goes from being acceptable to being detestable. By removing the capability of public and private institutions to do harm to others based simply on the color of their skin, or their gender, or their religion, or their sexual orientation, we create the capacity for change.
Liberals believe in tolerance, in inclusion, in the idea that all people are created equal, and that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence require us to strive, as a nation, for equality. We don't think government can legislate what's in people's hearts, but we believe that it has to legislate people's actions in such a way that those hearts might change, given time. We wouldn't stop bigots from speaking out, though we hope no one's listening, and we want to make sure they can't act on their hatred in ways damaging to others. We believe that most Americans are essentially good people who ignore pleas to fear and hate their neighbors. We understand that life is a struggle and that most people are trying to do the best they can, and we also understand that offering a helping hand to those who are hurting is not only the right thing morally but economically, as we all do better when poverty is lessened and the middle class is strong.
The patriotism of liberals is expressed not through seeking to hang onto an idealized idea of an American past that never was, but through seeking to discover how we can create a better, brighter, American future, with opportunity for all. We seek not to divide our fellow Americans, but to unite them in common purpose, to meet our challenges together.
We believe that all people deserve the rights delineated in those precious founding documents--equal rights, not special rights--and those rights should be protected; that, in fact, the fundamental purpose of government is the defense of those rights.
Dr. King said, "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."
We share that dream. We can't know what's in the hearts of others; we can judge them only by what they do. When people embrace hatred, we can turn away from them. When they try to oppress others in service of that hate, we can and we must step in to prevent harm.
He knew that he was describing an ideal America, not one that would ever fully come to pass. We've made great progress, but there's a long way yet to travel. Another sentence--not original to Dr. King, but which he often quoted in writings and speeches, offers hope. "The arc of the moral universe is long," it says, "but it bends toward justice."
We can only hope that he's right, and keep striving toward justice. As Americans, it's in our national DNA. And to do any less would be a disservice to the founders when they wrote, "All men are created equal..." We must keep trying, in Dr. King's words, to "hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope."
Speaking of hope, author and poet Maya Angelou wrote, "There is still hope. If there were not, there would be no reason to get up in the morning. There is hope. Sometimes you need to be jarred into finding it, jarred into sharing it. I remember a statement of the Rev. King's that you ought to believe something in life, believe in something so fervently that you will stand up with it until the end of your days. I think we all have to believe that the day will come that we do not have to be saddled; we will not be crippled with all this idiocy. I hope for that. I am still working for it. I am still writing for that. I speak of that. I sing about that. I pray about that."