On the eve of a national holiday, we honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
We lost this great man at the age of 39, assassinated in spring 1968 as our country was struggling to come to grips with a civil rights movement with King at the forefront.
We have to wonder how King would have helped shape race-related issues such as housing, segregation, access to jobs, generational wealth and education in the years following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had he not been taken from us. What role could he have played in transforming voting rights, a struggle that continues in many states today?
Yes, we lost him too soon.
Yet one still gets chills when reading or viewing King’s “I Have A Dream” speech he presented before more than 200,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His passion, patience and deep understanding of the problems Black people faced 100 years after the Civil War are profound. Many of his insights and answers to our troubles are relevant today.
Here are a few excerpts from that famous speech.
“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.”
Later, King talks about respect and commonalities among people to overcome violence and strife.
“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. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many 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. We cannot walk alone.”
He finishes with a crescendo.
“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 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!’”
There is so much we can and must still learn from Martin Luther King Jr., and we must strive to make King’s dream come true.