Thoughts on the Meaning of Martin Luther King's Life!
View from the Reflecting Pool, Lincoln Memorial. August 28, 1963
At the beginning of the school year in 1957 we had just moved to Beebe, Arkansas where we would be living while my dad was the Regular Army Advisor to the Arkansas National Guard.
The civil rights revolution hadn't touched us yet, we had spent the last three years in Germany and as a 6th grader, I knew little of the outside world that didn't impact playing with my friends, learning about girls and riding my bike as well as learning about the new little town that would be my home for the next three or four years.
How rude the awakening was to see the rioting in Little Rock about integration of all things. Growing up in the Army could be a blessing as well as a curse. A curse from the standpoint that we had friends we saw only occasionally when they were assigned to the same base we were, but a blessing as well. One of the really good things about my childhood was seeing and being with people of all different races and religions, cultures and mores. I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world. But Little Rock in '57 was something that I had never encountered before; blatant racism and a hostility to fellow citizens that I just couldn't understand. This Link will give you at timeline of those days.
I remember driving the 30 some miles to Little Rock to purchase new school clothes and uniforms for the Scout Troop I was joining. As we drove home we passed by a bus stop and I saw an elderly African American being screamed at by a bunch of toughs, with a police man standing by and doing nothing about it.
When I got home, I asked my dad why those people were so angry about going to school with "Negroes" the term we used at the time. Dad told me that people are afraid of what they don't understand and that the people of Little Rock, and indeed much of the south didn't understand that we were all Americans regardless of where we came from, regardless of the color of our skin and regardless of who we worshiped. Soon, Eisenhower put the Arkansas National Guard under the umbrella of the Federal Government and enforced the integration of Central High School.
In 1962 we moved to northern Virginia where my dad was assigned to the pentagon. The racism of the 50's in Arkansas seemed past. I couldn't have been more wrong. By now, I was ready to enter the 11th grade and had a much stronger sense of breaking the back of segregation as something do-able for all of America. Getting ready to enter my senior year in High School, a friend and I talked about going across the river to listen to Dr. King give an address at the Lincoln Memorial. I had been to the memorial several times over the last year, indeed, I looked up many of our national monuments and reveled in the promise that this country had, though it had yet to live up to the promise as far as civil rights was concerned. We decided to go, regardless of school.
Arriving at the Lincoln Memorial late, we were way back and because of a hearing impairment, I had some difficulty hearing the comments of the speakers in general, and Dr. King in particular. But, I edged closer and got as close as I could. And stood mesmerized, absolutely, inarguably mesmerized by his speech. Many of you, my wonderful readers have heard bits and pieces of his speech especially the "I have a dream!" part. But if you have never read the speech, take a few minutes today and read it below in it's entirety. The speech has the power to change your life if you will let it. Here it is, in it's entirety:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity. But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free.
One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro 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 an appalling condition. In a sense we have 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 would be guaranteed the inalienable 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 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.
So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the
Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.
The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. 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 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 their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" we can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. 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 a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and
tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the
veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, 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 on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four 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. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. 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 stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So 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 snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks 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 every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
When we let freedom 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!"
I went home that evening, thinking about what I had heard, thinking about the people I stood beside, thinking about the people I met, and what could I do to make this dream come true. That was the first of many many civil rights forays, most left me feeling good, some made me very afraid. But today, Dr. King's dream is largely fulfilled, not all the way, no, but largely. Three months later, on 11/22/63 John Kennedy was assasinated in Dallas and the world changed.
During a long weekend in April 1968, my fiancee and I were driving to east Texas to meet her grandparents. All the way, my fiancee told me that her grandfather was somewhat of a bigot and that he seldom if ever talked to "new people" We arrived in east Texas listening all the way from San Antonio to details of King's assasination. When we arrived, I met all the relatives (it seemed to be thousands) and everyone left after a short time leaving me and the grandfather alone, watching TV. As we watched one of the news interruptions, He turned to me and said "Well, that's another Coon that's bit the dust."
Horrified, I turned and looked at this wizened old man and thinking I'm about to put my foot in it, said "Surely, you don't mean that, that bullet could have been aimed at you or one of your kids for Christ's Sake." He looked at me and after a moment of silence (which seemed to last for hours) said, "Well, maybe I don't. You're a brave fella ain't ya?" I'm not, but I couldn't let his comment pass without saying something. Dr. King's message was just too damn important.
Many years have passed since then, and many is the time that I've had to deal with other people's racism, both black on white as well as white on black; counselors see a lot of really nasty stuff sometimes. I kept remembering "content of their character, not the color of their skin" and it always seemed to help.
Today, almost 37 years after his death, his words still ring. His commitment to God and to non-violence the zenith of the civil rights movement, much as the violence in the ghetto and outside of the ghetto today is the nadir. We still have ethno-centrism, religious bigotry and racism withus today in these United States, though it is less entrenched, less codified into law than it was 40+ years ago. One of the major reasons this is so is because of the efforts of Dr. King and those that followed him.
Today, Dr. Bill Cosby is carrying on much of Dr. King's message, to stand tall, stand streight, to put away those behaviors and attitudes that pull you down. But mostly, to gain a sense of self-respect and to move forward so that all of Gods children, black, brown, yellow, red, white will be judged not by "the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
Someday, we will all realize the futility of thinking less of others because they are different than we are. Someday, we will all recognize the brotherhood of man. It may be a long way away, but I am an optimist.
We need someone to step up to the plate today, to carry forth Dr. King's message and in all the turmoil about war, taxes, red vs. blue etc., I'm wondering who it will be. Will it be You? You? Or perhaps You?