IT WAS ONLY 17-MINUTES in length, but when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told over 200,000 civil rights workers who had gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial that he, “Had a Dream”, it began to change the face of racism and racial equality in this country.
I have written in this column before about Dr. King and his work to help show a country that we had – and have – more important things to do rather than dislike each other based on the outward color of our skin.
As a child growing up in the 1960s, I also know about the racial tension that engulfed our country at that time; and the strides – sometimes small and sometimes large – that our nation has achieved in just over 50 years.
I also note that I grew up in a small, very predominantly white community in Centerville, Indiana; attended a very predominantly white secondary school at Hanover College; and have lived in very predominantly white Switzerland County for nearly 30 years.
It’s not that I have lived my life separated from racial issues on purpose, but the nature of where I’ve spent my life shows that I don’t have many “up close and personal” experiences.
I can tell you that in 1981 my wife, Jacquita – also from the same small town – was a student at Ball State University when someone chose to burn a cross on the campus.
She will tell you that as she watched the situation on television, she couldn’t understand why anyone would do such a thing; but when she turned to see the expressions of the faces of the African-American students living in her dorm, she because to see more clearly that this is a very, very personal conflict.
I have admired Dr. King my whole life because instead of exchanging bigotry for more bigotry, he chose to begin the process of helping all of us find common ground. He asked a nation to focus on what we have in common, rather than what separates us as people.
In his fight for equality; he and others endured hardships, imprisonment; and – ultimately – death at the hands of those who were trying to keep the status quo.
A few years ago my family and I had the opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia. We toured the home he grew up in, and we went to the Ebenezer Baptist Church that both he and his father pastored.
We toured the Center for Nonviolent Change that is a part of the site; and we visited the crypts where Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, are entombed.
The tombs are surrounded by a pool of water; and the ledges that form the pool include etchings of lines from his speeches.
I learned a lot that day; mainly that even though we’ve made big strides towards equality in this nation in 50 years, there’s still a long way to go.
But in 1963 standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King was delivering a prepared speech when the famous singer Mahalia Jackson shouted towards the podium, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
It was then that Dr. King left his prepared notes and, ad libbing, delivered some of the most famous words ever spoken:
I say to you today, my friends, 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, 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. 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.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a 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. 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 snowcapped 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, when we allow freedom to 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!”
Dr. King would have celebrated his 83rd birthday of January 15th of this year. I know that our country still has a long way to go to achieve his dream, and the dream of others; but it’s still nice to think that we are continuing to move forward.