occurred fifty years ago affects your life today.
Martin Luther King Jr., delivered a simple speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.
“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation…”
With those words, Dr. King began his address to the thousands of spectators gathered on the mall in Washington D. C. on August 28, 1963. The primary message of his speech dealt with the fact that 100 years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation; the American Dream
was not available to a large segment of the American population -- the colored segment.
In Dr. King’s words, “One hundred years later, the colored American lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the colored American 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 a shameful condition.”
Dr. King went on to describe that shameful condition, which he characterized as the failure of
America to honor the promissory note issued to all Americans, black and white; the promise made by the architects of our great republic guaranteeing the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He stated emphatically 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 its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
Despite the dire reality of the circumstances facing a large portion of the American population, King said he refused to believe the bank of justice was bankrupt. He refused to believe that the great vaults of opportunity in this nation were without funds. He appealed to the moral compass within each of us as he urged his listeners, “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God's children.”
The injustice society imposed on the black segment of our population held little meaning to me at the time I first heard those words. I was nine years old. I lived in an all white neighborhood.
The only black people I had seen were images on a television screen, or clearing dishes from tables in restaurants. From a social studies class in school I was vaguely aware that once upon a time there were slaves in America; but no more because Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves. I do not think I was even aware that slaves were black people. I am certain I heard the slang term for Negro spoken in my presence, although I am just as certain its meaning eluded me. For that matter, the word “Negro” had no meaning for me in August of 1963.
I was, however, familiar with the phrase “The America Dream.” It was familiar enough that I could define what it meant to me: the opportunity to achieve success in America. It was something I understood to be a birthright to everyone living in America. I was ignorant of the fact that an entire segment of America never had that opportunity.
As I listened to Dr. King speak, a revelation was taking place in my mind. He spoke and the rhythm of his voice captivated me, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you, my friends, we have 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 out in 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 oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
When he mentioned Mississippi, I listened more intently. I had recently learned my father had lived there and I had relatives still living in Mississippi.
“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,” He made me think of my father. There were four of us children in my family. My father and Dr. King were close to the same age.
“I have a dream today.” As he paused, and took a breath, it occurred to me his speaking was like
singing. “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 interpostion and nullification; that one day right down 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.”
Instinctively, I knew he would repeat the refrain; and he did, “I have a dream today.”
And then, right on the beat -- he continued with the next verse:
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be engulfed, every hill shall be exalted and every mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains and the crooked places will be
made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
He spoke the words and they formed pictures in my mind’s eye. I could see the America he described; I could feel the passion he felt. The preacher was in the pulpit and he was preaching a sermon directly to me and the spirit of the Lord was with him and with me.
His velvet voice, with its Southern drawl, continued, “This is our hope. This is the faith that I will 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 climb up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
It suddenly dawned on me who the slaves were and who it was that Lincoln freed.
“This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning ‘My country
'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing; Land where my father's died, land of the Pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!’"
I knew this song. It was a song I learned to sing in the first grade. It was a song I had sung a thousand times. This was the first time I heard the words and knew what they meant.
Like a steam locomotive, gathering speed with every turn of the wheel, Dr. King brought forth
his conclusion, “And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true… So let freedom ring from the 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 every hill and molehill of Mississippi and every mountainside.”
When I was nine, the ramifications of what this man said were unknown to me. I had a sense that I was witness to a moment of historic importance, although I did not know of what importance it was or how it would affect me personally -- or if it would. I did not yet understand the degree to which injustice existed in the world beyond my doorstep. In my nine-year-old world, Satan was the cause of all bad things. It was evil that brought about pain and fear. On this day, I learned about another form of evil. On this day, I learned about an insidious thing called bigotry. “Freedom” was no longer just a word, it was a concept with an important new meaning.
Martin Luther King looked out across the mall and finished his speech. With a strong voice he
said, “When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement 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.’"
Fifty years have passed. Much progress occurred in civil rights during that time span. Much
Three months after listening to this speech, another historic event occurred that made a lasting
impact on my life. This time it happened in my hometown, and once again, it unfolded as a black and white image on the television screen.
I watched, riveted to the screen, as the newsreel footage was played over and over and over.
The black Lincoln convertible made a left hand turn and passed in front of a building. Then it sped up as it passed an area Walter Cronkite kept referring to as “the grassy knoll.” A man in a dark suit was running after the limousine, trying to climb onto it and I could see Mrs. Kennedy reaching for
Later in the evening, CBS reporter Ray Moore asked Martin Luther King what it was like to live under the constant threat of assassination. King said, “you almost get immune to being afraid.” He said it was necessary to view such things philosophically, and that he believed the cause was right and that someone should have the courage and fortitude to stand up for it, even if it meant death.
The following Sunday my family went to lunch at a private club with a group of people from church. As we arrived, a black man wearing a white jacket informed the group that someone shot Kennedy’s suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. He led us to a game room where a television set was showing a replay of the Lee Harvey Oswald shooting. From New York, NBC anchor Frank McGee announced the assailant was identified as Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner.
Within the hour, the announcer said that Oswald died, in the same hospital where President Kennedy was forty-eight hours earlier. The news reporters called Jack Ruby “the gunman” or ‘the killer.” Reporters never referred to Ruby as an assassin. Reporters never referred to Oswald as assassinated; only murdered. I remember thinking there was significance to that distinction at the time.
Those two pivotal events in 1963, King’s speech from the Lincoln Memorial and Kennedy’s death in Dallas, which transpired over a short period of less than ninety days, would profoundly affect my life over the next decade, and beyond.
During the next few years, as I continued growing up, the news was an important part of my daily life. I watched the evening news on television and read a newspaper every day. I followed the progress of the civil rights movement. I remember coverage of President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I remember the photograph showing the president handing a pen to Martin Luther King during the signing ceremony. I remember the riots in Detroit and Watts. I remember
seeing newsreel footage of dogs biting marchers and of people knocked off their feet by the force of water from fire hoses. I remember starting junior high school and the first black boy attending my school. I remember how frightened and alone he was. I remember he carried his
lunch tray and looked vainly for a familiar face in the lunchroom. I remember his name was Anthony Pate.
On April 4, 1968, CBS News “interrupted this program for a special report.” It was something that was becoming frequent, special reports interrupting the regular programming. This time Dan Rather was reporting from Washington. He said, “The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot to death by an assassin late today as he stood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.”
Not quite five years earlier Dr. King gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech. The speech he delivered was as much a wake-up call to white Americans as it was a plea for black Americans to receive not just fair treatment, but equal treatment as the framers of our constitution promised.
Now, the man responsible for most of the social progress just beginning to take hold in our country was felled by an assassin’s bullet. The man who advocated peaceful dissent was now the victim of the cruelest act of racism, losing his life at the whim of a coward.
In the most ironic of circumstances, Dr. King himself spoke about his own mortality just the day before. Unknown at the time, it was to be his final speech. In an eerie premonition, he spoke to the crowd in terms of the journey we all share.
As so many times before, his speech ended with a crescendo. He spoke slowly and distinctly as he said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But, I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And, He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And, I've looked over. And, I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But, I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
Those were not the final words of his final speech. There were four more short sentences:
“And so, I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”
When the shot rang out, when he felt the bullet rip into his flesh, we can only imagine the thoughts that ran through Dr. King’s mind. Because of the way he lived, the body of writings and speeches he left behind, it is likely we can assume he felt no vengeance toward his assassin. He knew too well the price of martyrdom. He had prepared himself for it. As he said so often, “keep your eyes on the prize.”
The prize is fulfillment of the promise of the American Dream for every American, regardless of their political beliefs; regardless of their views on Civil Rights; regardless of their religious convictions; regardless of their national origin; regardless of their skin color; regardless
of their sexual preference; regardless of their status; regardless of their age.
Nearly three hundred years of history brought us to this place and time. We have come a long way toward righting the wrongs of the past during these fifty short years since 1963. There is still a ways to go. Fortunately, it is no longer such a great distance.