On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. – then the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – addressed an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Gathered together for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, those participants bore witness to one of the most stirring and memorable addresses in the history of the Republic.
In 1963, the United States was a deeply divided country. In the hundred years since President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the status of African-Americans in America had not changed dramatically. Denied voting rights in many Southern states and equal economic opportunities nationally, they – although no longer slaves – were not truly free. In the northern states, most African-Americans lived in ghettos in major cities. In the South, they existed as “second class” citizens, segregated from white Americans as a result of Jim Crow Laws enacted by states and municipalities that allegedly provided them “separate but equal” status.
In the 1950′s, attempts by individual African-Americans to achieve social justice were met by police brutality and violence against their communities. It was in this racially-charged atmosphere that Martin Luther King, Jr. contributed to the founding and assumed the mantle of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group dedicated to using the moral authority and organizing power of the African-American Christian community in advancing the cause of civil rights.
Drawing upon the tenets of Christianity and the example of nonviolent civil disobedience displayed by Mahatma Gandhi in India, Dr. King was among the leaders of what would become known as the American Civil Rights Movement. Of course, as in all movements, there were others who advocated different, more extreme means to achieve their ends – such as, violence and rioting. Dr. King, however, never strayed from the high moral ground.
It is against this backdrop of deep division in our country and division among the African-American community at large that Dr. King addressed his audience, the nation, and the world. Confident in the rightness of his cause and the “redemptive” value of “unearned suffering,” he warned his followers to refrain from attempts to “satisfy [their] thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred” and extolled them to “conduct [their] struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
At the same time, he admonished those in authority of the “fierce urgency of Now” – that small, incremental change would not be acceptable, but rather “the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice” was Now. And, he buoyed the spirits of those in despair with a vision of a land free of racial division and strife.
Thus, in a “dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” Dr. King envisioned a time when America would achieve “racial justice,” when “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” And, on that day, asserted Dr. King, “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!’”
Dr. King, like many others throughout the centuries who have attempted to change the established order, made the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs. His efforts, however, have not been in vain. Nearly four decades after his slaying, the legal barriers to equality of opportunity for all have been removed.
This does not mean that prejudice no longer exists. It simply indicates that there is now no official federal or state-sponsored bias. Prejudice, however, is still alive and well and resides in the human heart and soul. Not simply racially-based, it can be based on gender, age, religion, socioeconomic status, appearance, and a variety of other factors.
The next great breakthrough in human rights, I believe, will not come via governmental fiat. There will be no marches or demonstrations. No speeches or proclamations will be made. It will arrive silently and without fanfare. It will occur when each of us truly realizes the dignity and worth of each and every human being, regardless of race, creed, age, sex, or country of origin. It may not happen until mankind is faced with extinction or another cataclysmic event, but it will come. And, when it does, perhaps we will achieve Dr. King’s dream of freedom in spirit as well as in law.