On this day in 1963, words were spoken which may be rightly said to have changed a nation. True, thousands and thousands of people had been striving and sacrificing for the change long before the speech, and that work is continuing today. But on 28 August 1963, the whole world watched as a great man made a great speech about a simple idea: All people are created equal and should be equal.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a human being, so it is not surprising that in recent years some of his foibles have been brought to light. If he was flawed, however, these were minor flaws, for he remained focussed on his goal, and he remained true to his principles. When he was met with violence, he offered peaceful response. Dr. King never hesitated to speak out, but he continually forebore to strike out. And though he could march 25,000 people from Selma to Montgomery to present their demands to Governor Wallace, he did not use that great crowd to extort or coerce. At a time of uncertainty and unrest, Dr. King strove to effect maximal change with minimal upheaval.
Dr. King was also one of America’s greatest orators, possessed of an entrancing speaking voice, a dramatic delivery style, and a great gift of rhetorical brilliance. Few people can hear a recording of a speech by King and remain unmoved. His, “I Have a Dream” speech surely ranks among the very foremost of American speeches, and it represents a landmark in the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. In one of the most often quoted passages in any American speech, Dr. King proclaimed:
“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!”
It is clear that Dr. King’s work is not yet completed, even today. But it is also clear that his dream did not die with him. He was just 38 years old when he was killed; shortly before his death he was heard to wonder if he had accomplished anything at all in the previous dozen years: there was still so very much yet to be done. The work which Dr. King undertook remains to this day unfinished, but he did not strive in vain. The world we live in today is one far removed from that of 1955 or even 1968. It is today unthinkable that dogs and fire hoses would be used against peaceful demonstrators. It is unimaginable that a state government would seriously assert its right to disenfranchise and to discriminate against a large portion of its citizens. It seems medieval that a state would deny anyone employment, or legal rights, or even so basic a human institution as marriage, based upon race. Yet in one form or another, issues of these types still face us, more usually as a matter of kind rather than degree.
The work is not yet done. But it has been well begun.
Dr. King earned a goodly share of the credit for getting this work underway. It seems fitting, that we pause for a moment on this anniversary to remember a great leader. And to recall his great work, a work in progress.
Flower Mound, Texas
Oh, the worst of tragedies is not to die young, but to live until I am seventy-five and yet not ever truly to have lived.
– Martin Luther King Jr.