This Wednesday, August 28, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. All across the nation people are celebrating the occasion this weekend, and thousands turned out in Washington D.C. to return to the place where Dr. King spoke so eloquently. Many speakers honored the man and the moment, as well they should, because that day was one of the most important events in the history of the United States.
As a college English instructor, I have used Dr. King’s speech in my freshmen writing classes because it is one of the best examples of persuasion and argument ever written. I could stop right there, but it is also one of the most meaningful and important pieces of American literature ever written. I must stress that this speech is inherently American in nature. It could not have been written by a black person in Europe or Africa because it addresses specifically the plight of black people in this country. When I have taught this in my classes, foreign students have been amazed by “how American” the speech is but also its “universal” nature because, by addressing the issues that needed to be overcome in 1963 America, Dr. King also highlighted human rights of people all over the world.
Usually when I used Dr. King’s speech in class, I also would include the amazing poem “A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes. This poem is the perfect companion piece, and it examines what happens when “the dream” is not realized because others stand in the way. His last line has resonance to this day when he asks, “Or does it explode?” This has touched my students over the years because after reading Dr. King’s speech, they can analyze its power in a different perspective, one which echoes King’s concerns but also raises new ones.
This is the essence of what happened on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, August 24, 2013 . To see Dr. King’s son – Martin Luther King 3rd – standing there, following in his father’s footsteps, was a welcome and emotional sight. It also provided a connection to the very words Dr. King used fifty years ago when he said, “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.” Dr. King’s son reminded the crowd, “The task is not done, the journey not complete.”
People only have to look at recent events to confirm this to be true. In the country’s – and I humbly say the world’s – most famous city (New York), a policy called “stop and frisk” targets people of color, most especially young black men. In Brooklyn the statue of Jackie Robinson is defaced with racial slurs and swastikas. A football player named Riley Cooper uses a deplorable word for blacks with arrogance, and a world away in Switzerland even the famous Oprah Winfrey is denied the right to shop because of the color of her skin. Maybe most importantly, black people (and many whites as well) in this country see the “not guilty” verdict in the killing of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin as an alarming sign that Mr. King is not at all wrong when he says “the journey not complete.” They rightly wonder at this moment in time if it has stalled or even stopped completely.
Other speakers included Attorney General Eric Holder, civil rights activist Al Sharpton, and Representative John Lewis of Georgia. Mr. Sharpton was especially eloquent as he charged the crowd not to forget the sacrifices of others and reminded them of Medgar Evers, saying that his I.D. should be good enough for everyone to have the right to vote. The fact that the right to vote is even still an issue in 2013 has to prove there is something wrong with the big picture in America.
If the huge turnout is not enough to remind people of the significance of what happened 50 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial, it should also be a sign that there is so much yet to do today. The people in that crowd and those speakers made it very clear that there has to be a new dialogue about race in this country. The way things are now is that race is an uncomfortable topic, with many people wishing it would go away. The truth is that we have to not only open a dialogue but direct the conversation – racism is ugly; it still exists in this country, and it is time to do something more tangible about it.
It is necessary and compelling that the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was honored on the 50th anniversary of his famous speech, but now we have to go about continuing the process. The only way to do that is to not only respect his “dream” but to live it on a daily basis. 50 years ago he started the conversation and it is up to us to continue it, enhance it, and push for the day when silence will mean more than wishing the issue of race would go away, but rather that his dream has been so well realized that there is nothing left to say.
Photo credits: hughes-poets.org; crowd-nytimes; king the 3rd-AP; dr. king-navylive.dodlive.mil