COMMENTARY | Forty-eight years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and delivered the most resonating speech in history. On that day, he spoke of a dream, a vision of a different America without segregation, without prejudice, an America of equality. Telling the audience that they stood in the symbolic shadow of Abraham Lincoln, the visionary civil rights leader likely could not have imagined his memorial would cast its own shadow mere steps away.
On Aug. 28, Dr. King told a sea of thousands that “1963 is not an end, but a beginning.” Though he died too soon see for himself, the official dedication of his memorial, set for the anniversary of his “I Have a Dream,” speech illustrates how far from that beginning we have come.
The first time I heard that booming voice and the words that make me well up still now, I was in second grade watching a film strip. Against the static pictures, the sound of the words infused me, traveling through my skin to the essence of my soul, where they bonded and lived.
Before then, I’d taken the diversity of my classroom, of my neighborhood, as expected, not something that people died to achieve. As I grew, I saw how difference added to my life, made it more vivid, more interesting. I never understood the use of the word “tolerance” in relation to diversity. To “tolerate” something is to hold it at arm’s length, to eye it suspiciously, to wish it would go away.
I wanted to keep it near me, to absorb the common light of humanity the same way I absorbed the words of Dr. King. As he said in that speech: “…[M]any of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
Those words are universal truth. When we demean, when we oppress, when we use race as a weapon, we bind our own ankles to that mud-raking weight and take ourselves down. Basing opinions and arguments and politics on race is flimsy, lazy at best, and boastfully ignorant at worst. Racism, whether a whispered hint or a blatant jab, in our modern world speaks of having nothing else to say, no facts left to argue, no intelligence to impart.
Of desiring a world where everyone stays rigidly stuck in their assigned roles.
With recent public talk of “tar babies” and “O-Bam-eos,” regarding our sitting president, we have not yet reached the “Promised Land” King described in his final speech. But with the first African-American president down the road in the White House and his own statue feet away from his impassioned plea for justice, somewhere Dr. King is watching a dream on the cusp of reality.