In 50 years, no one has made a speech that has resonated more than the speech the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
A speech devoid of partisanship, malevolence, grandstanding and pettiness, delivered with such moral certainty, is a rarity in American discourse. King spoke to the heart of racism in a still-segregated society and demanded better for this nation.
King began by noting that a century had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation but that “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
Justice was still in the distance. But King was not without hope and “refused to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” He wasn’t alone, and he wasn’t wrong. King’s efforts and the efforts of others in the civil-rights movement led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
There is so much good in that speech that it seemed to be inspired from above, and we most recall the passages about King’s dream.
“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.”
Who wouldn’t share that dream today? And, outside of the darkest fringe of society, that dream has mostly materialized. I wasn’t born yet in 1963 but was fortunate to grow up in a world where we were taught not to judge by skin color. My children don’t consider skin color any more telling than eye or hair color.
What’s less quoted from King’s speech was his warning to other leaders and participants of the civil-rights movement to shun physical violence and to conduct their struggle on the “high plane of dignity and discipline.”
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
While those words were intended for those within the movement, they apply to all Americans. And I’m not sure how far we are yet in achieving that part of the dream.
There is still too much bitterness and hatred among Americans when it comes to race. It rears its head in the aftermath of major media events – the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Trayvon Martin shooting and George Zimmerman verdict.
Many still can’t separate the actions of one or a few from an entire race of people. It defies logic, but that tendency persists among a portion of American character that is still too loud to ignore.
The bitterness and hatred lies within some of both whites and blacks. Whenever it manifests, you sigh and realize that as far as laws have come in outlawing discrimination, we still have some work to do.
If King were alive today, I expect that he would have much more to say on that subject – and say it more articulately and passionately than this column is able to convey.
• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH.