With yesterday’s events and discussions related to Martin Luther King Day, I took the opportunity to once again watch Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Beyond his wonderful oratory, I was struck by how similar in some ways that time was to our own. Like now, the country at the time was deeply and bitterly divided. Like now, many expressed a fervent resistance to change. And like now, that resistance was occasionally laced with threats of violence.
But from the perspective provided by over 47 years, it’s clear that the change Dr. King dreamed of in 1963 has in many ways come to pass. As pundit Mark Shields related on the PBS NEWs Hour in discussing the tragic events in Tuscon:
MARK SHIELDS: There was one observation that was made this week I just have to pass on to you by a friend of mine, Allen Ginsberg, who is an historian up in Maine. And he said, this week, we saw a white, Catholic, Republican federal judge murdered on his way to greet a Democratic woman, member of Congress, who was his friend and was Jewish. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year-old Mexican-American college student, who saved her, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon.
JIM LEHRER: Dr. Rhee.
MARK SHIELDS: Dr. Rhee, that’s right.
And then it was all eulogized and explained by our African-American president. And, in a tragic event, that’s a remarkable statement about the country.
Something like that could never have happened – or perhaps even been dreamed of – back in the mid-1960s.
Another event that might not have been dreamed of back in 1963 took place yesterday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where a group of fourth-graders from Washington, D.C.’s Watkins Elementary School gathered to read Dr. King’s famous speech. Seeing boys and girls of different races gathered together to read snippets of the speech brought to mind something Dr. King said in his speech:
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.
The way yesterday’s event was presented – with many different children reading parts of it, rather than one person reading the whole thing – seemed to reflect a sensibility that we are all a part of a larger whole, united in our diversity. This is a viewpoint that is much more common today than it was back in 1963.
Ironically, yesterday’s event also reminded me of a recent event in the new (Republican) House of Representatives, in which different members took turns reading parts of the U.S. Constitution. While the people who came up with that event may not have intended it, the methodology of the event reflected an inclusiveness not unlike yesterday’s children’s event.
It’s always hard to say what the future holds. But in reflecting on how far we’ve come from Dr. King’s speech in 1963, it seems at least possible today to dream of a united America that will someday move beyond the fears and vitriol raised by our current era of change.