Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech was only the beginning. Fifty years later, there's still work to be done.
Written by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)
Tens of thousands of people flocked to Washington, D.C. this past weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement. It was half a century ago that more than 250,000 supporters traveled to the nation’s capital, mobilizing to force the country to acknowledge the need for social rights legislation. It was also 50 years ago to the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, recognized as the defining oration of the movement. Despite the strides made in the subsequent years, Dr. King’s speech was simply an introduction.
Delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial 100 years after President Lincoln freed slaves with the signature of the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. King’s 17-minute speech referenced Lincoln’s executive order, the United States Constitution, the Bible, and the Declaration of Independence to denounce racism. Dr. King announced his vision of a better world, one that seemed unfathomable to some at the time. Even with the improvements made since his rousing call for equal rights, the nation will only inch closer to his dream if attitudes about equality continue to evolve over the next 50 years.
It almost goes without saying that I'm eternally thankful for the work of visionaries like Dr. King. It's their actions that granted me access to an education equal to that of counterparts of other races, and created a more egalitarian society as compared to previous generations. However, I'm still not completely comfortable—not in a world where an unarmed black teenager is killed returning to his father's home because he was perceived as a threat or a federal judge has to curb a police initiative that all but encourages racial profiling. I may have the right to vote and access to the best opportunities, but I won't feel truly equal until I'm not viewed as a menace.
Whenever the word "equality" is thrown around, more often than not, people connect it to race. But equality should extend to gender and rights for the gay, lesbian, and transgender communities as well. And, with a glass ceiling still impeding women in the workplace, no one can truly preach about equality. Nor can we do so until same-sex marriage is widely accepted and all same-sex couples have access to state and federal level benefits. While everyone hasn't seen the light on either issue, decisive action still must be taken if there's any hope of realistically creating a world similar to the one that Dr. King envisioned.
Early in his speech, Dr. King referred to the Emancipation Proclamation as a “joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.” Though the last century had seen slaves freed physically, the psychological imprisonment remained, and society worked to keep that firmly in place:
But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still 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 languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.
Calling on both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, Dr. King said that America's Founding Fathers guaranteed everyone the “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This meant promising the equal right to live out the American dream to all.
It was the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement that allowed United States Attorney General Eric Holder to realize his potential. The country’s first African-American attorney general used his time in front of the podium at last Saturday's memorial celebration kickoff to thank civil rights leaders and demonstrators for their bravery, because without it, he wouldn’t have ascended to his current rank. Though his own motivation propelled him to his position, Holder acknowledged that civil rights leaders opened doors for himself and others. “We must remember generations who carried themselves on a day-to-day basis with great dignity in the face of unspeakable injustice,” he said. “But for them, I would not be attorney general of the United States and Barack Obama would not president of the United States of America.” Their fearlessness tore down barriers, allowing for the changes necessary for Holder and so many others to succeed at the highest levels possible.
Though he was brazen and outspoken, 2Pac was also fiercely intelligent and insightful enough to know that changes had to be made before the country could welcome its first African-American president. “And although it all seems heaven sent/We ain’t ready to see a black president,” he asserted on “Changes,” one of his many posthumous hits. Recorded during the early ‘90s, the song reflected a belief popular at the time: That a black president was still a pipe dream, primarily because the world wasn't prepared for that level of acceptance. Even with the strides made in the three decades following the march and Dr. King’s speech, the idea of a black man one day calling the White House home still seemed far off. ‘Pac knew that it wasn’t impossible, it just wasn’t realistic at the time. In 2008—a decade after “Changes” blew up and 45 years after the March on Washington—the time was right.
On Nov. 4., 2008, Barack Obama made history, becoming the first African-American to be elected President of the United States. Today marks yet another important day of Obama’s presidency, two terms that will forever be over-anaylzed and scrutinized. Though it won’t rank as high as the day he was sworn in as the country’s first African-American president or the night he announced that the United States had killed Osama bin Laden, all eyes will be on President Obama’s as he commemorates the “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial at 3 p.m.—the same time that Dr. King gave his speech 50 years ago. Though the timing of the country’s first black president honoring the work of a man who climbed obstacles and paved the way for his presidency is perfect, the moment is far bigger than that. Obama’s presidency is the biggest representation of progress that the country has made since the March on Washington. In light of that, President Obama is all but obligated to deliver one of the most important addresses of his tenure, if not his life.
Due to the magnitude of the moment, President Obama’s words today will forever be compared to Dr. King’s. For this reason, he can’t pull any punches; his words must come from straight from the heart, just like they did when he addressed Trayvon Martin’s death following George Zimmerman's acquittal. Just like Dr. King did when he diverted from his prepared speech and began almost freestyling about his dream of a progressive future. The “I Have a Dream” speech was never about a completed mission, it was about taking the next steps to accomplish a goal:
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
The speech itself was a reflection on the changes in the 100 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, but its underlying tone was that the surface had only been scratched. It was about hope and the need for change—the very same pillars of President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Dr. King’s speech was a check in, a marking point in history that looked back on how things were, assessed present conditions and the continued need for societal adjustments and looked towards a better tomorrow should they be made. President Obama’s address will be a similar historical marker, an update on the fight for equality. This goes beyond racial equity—it represents parity for both genders, as well as the gay and lesbian community.
Due to the expanded definition of equal rights, we live in a very different world than the one that motivated the March on Washington and arguably the most famous speech of the 20th century. Should that culture of change persist, Dr. King’s dream will continue to become less of a utopian fantasy and more of a reality. Considering the betterment of society since that historic day in 1963, there’s much to be optimistic about.
Written by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)