As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and work tomorrow (Monday, January 16), I think that we should take a moment to remember his important contribution to our country and the world. Dr. King walked with tremendous dignity despite carrying a heavy load, in his own interpretation of faith, much the same way Jesus did when carrying the cross. Dr. King’s crosses to bear were prejudice, inequity, and ignorance, but he did not shrink away from this momentous challenge but rather embraced it as his raison d’être until the day he died.
When I teach composition to college students, one of the pieces I use for the section on argument and persuasion is Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It is one of the finest pieces of writing, persuasive or otherwise, that we have as a legacy of American truth and justice. Like Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Dr. King’s speech stands the test of time, and it seems to me to be even more poignant and to the point than it was forty-two years ago.
Can we imagine what it must have been like to stand on the Mall that day and hear that magnificent speech? I’d say there have only been a few times in history when such a great oratorical moment has been recorded for posterity and so many people learned of it and felt its impact. The fact that it was broadcast on national television added to its importance and scope, and I can picture the New York lawyer, the Congressman in Washington, the tycoon on his estate, and the poor people of this country all watching it at the same time. Obviously its effect would vary depending on the individual, and those who were ignorant or intolerant were probably not going to watch (or more importantly listen) in the first place.
There are so many amazing lines in this speech. The one I like best, and one that I know I will share with my daughter as she gets older, is “I dream of a time when my children are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Who would not want this for his or her children and all children everywhere? This and so many other lines from the speech haunt me, for Dr. King’s dream should not ever be forgotten, but sometimes it seems that it has been.
We need all children to wake up and go to school everyday knowing that it is their world, that we are going to make it so, that we want them ALL to learn, that they can be anything they want to be, and that this is true and not just an advertising slogan. This has to be valid for all races and both genders. The legendary New York City politician Shirley Chisolm, who died last year, said that her greatest obstacle (in politics) was not being black but being a woman. Dr. King’s words apply to this and many other situations for women. A female student must never be afraid to raise her hand, especially not because she is a girl and fears indignity or believes she will not be treated with equity.
We have a long way to go, but look how far we’ve come. I suppose Dr. King would be pleased with many things that have transpired since he gave that amazing speech in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial on that beautiful August day in 1963, but he would also be outraged that many inequities remain. As we reflect on the marvel of the accomplishments of his life, his contribution to our culture and nation, we must remain in awe. Against much adversity, he stood for peace, dignity, and decency when no one else could or would do so.
The “I Have a Dream” speech is for all Americans, including those from many countries who did not call America home back in 1963. Then the divide might have been discerned as between black and white; today the unfortunate rift is more multifaceted, with so many immigrants living here from all over the world. I’m sure Dr. King would be cognizant of the fact that these new Americans face the challenges of those who came before them, and he would embrace this diversity and stress the necessity of opening our arms and welcoming them into the American family, the mosaic that has become our nation.
If Dr. King were alive today…. It is hard to end that sentence and not think of possibilities, of his growing older and guiding generations who have come since his passing. One thing we know is that Dr. King learned something important from another great leader named Mahatma Gandhi (who was also assassinated). He understood Gandhi’s wisdom that peaceful protest is the only successful kind, for it melts the swords of the oppressors much faster than going at them with firepower.
Of all the things he might have done, I believe Dr. King would have continued his work for peace while always remaining peaceful; it seems that lesson is sorely needed in this uncertain time in history. If only people across the world would embrace this tactic today, we would have less war and much more peace and stability.
What would our world be like if Dr. King had lived? It would have been inevitably a much better place.