(Photo/The Library of Congress)
Milestone anniversaries afford the opportunity to reflect on the past, assess the present and ponder the future. This process can be personal, as when we remember births and deaths within our families. And it can be collective, as when we honor seminal events in our nation’s history.
Next week we mark such an occasion: the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech — one of the most important orations in American history.
America in 1963 remained largely segregated, with northern blacks living in ghettos while their southern peers were denied access to restaurants and hotels. Progress toward equal rights was being made, but it was slow and gained at great cost.
Nine years had passed since the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. It had been eight years since Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a white rider on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. And just the year before, James Meredith had become the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi.
Despite slow progress on civil rights, it was a time of general optimism in America. We still were in the midst of the great post-World War II economic and baby boom. Then President John F. Kennedy had survived the Bay of Pigs fiasco, stared down the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis, founded the Peace Corps and launched the race to land a man on the moon.
When King stepped to the podium at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, he was the 16th of 18 speakers at the March on Washington, a rally organized in support of Kennedy’s civil rights legislation. To a crowd of about 250,000, King gave a soaring speech, invoking the Bible, Declaration of Independence and Emancipation Proclamation while calling for freedom and equal rights for blacks:
“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 our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: ‘For Whites Only.’”
King ended by calling for America to put aside racial divisions and unite:
“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, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.’”
King’s words inspired a generation of Americans, including Mayor Bill Euille (see his My View on 21) to work for equal rights and racial unity. The successful March on Washington helped propel passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later.
Obviously, that’s not the end of the story, as Kennedy’s assassination three months after the speech shattered the innocence of the early 1960s. By 1968, the escalating war in Vietnam and the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy led blacks and anti-war protestors to take to the streets in revolt.
Despite, or perhaps because of that awful turmoil, America has changed dramatically in the 50 years since King gave his speech. One need only look across the river to the first black president in the White House to see how far we’ve come. And yet, one only needs to look at the divisions stemming from the George Zimmerman murder trial to see that racial suspicion and animosity remains prevalent in America.
To paraphrase a 1960s commercial, “We’ve come a long way, baby.” The question is: Do we still have the ability to dream like King?