One thousand and fifty eight words and not a single one was “dream.” That’s how far Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was into his famous 1963 speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before he gave voice to the phrase that would crystallize a movement, personify his too-short time on earth, and cast his legacy that would endure long past the final echoes of an assassin’s gunshot disappeared into the Memphis night.
They tell us Mahalia Jackson interrupted King saying: “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” He then set aside his prepared remarks to share a vision that would change the course of history.
I’m not the first to note it, but one can’t escape the similarities of King’s famous speech and the Declaration of Independence penned by Thomas Jefferson and others nearly two centuries prior. In each case, serious grievances were aired — wrongs still not acknowledged by the oppressors and an oppressed long since pressed beyond the point of patience.
But, in each case, it’s not the backward looking list of complaints we remember, but rather the transforming visions put forth by Jefferson and by King in looking forward to a better world.
We take for granted the idea that all men are created equal or that the creator endows each soul with unalienable rights. But, it was a preposterous notion for a British subject in Jefferson’s day. And, 187 years later, it was still an impossible dream for a black man, woman, or child in America. Yet, King shared that dream.
In a summer of fire hosing, bus burning, lynching, and church bombing, it was unfathomable to imagine Mississippi transformed into “an oasis of freedom and justice.” It was unthinkable to believe in Alabama that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” But, there it was. He put it out there anyway.
Calling out wrongs isn’t always easy. But, it’s also never enough. Anyone can reach the point where enough is enough… that step at which “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” But the men and women who change the course of history are those who go beyond that point. They stand upon the rubble of all that’s gone wrong and lift us with them to a place from which they can point us to a better time, a better place, a better us. They are the sublime intersection of courage and vision. They carry us from our pasts to our futures.
Those who measure progress in the 50 years since August 28, 1963 solely in terms of race relations and racial equality are missing the bigger picture. We still have a long, long way to go. But, that’s true in so many ways.
“I have a dream that my four little 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.”
Racially, we live in an integrated world. But, it’s a world segregated, divided, and subdivided in so many ways. Race, class, religion, politics, economics, place of birth… These are just a few of the many ways we label, classify, and isolate ourselves one from another. Seldom do we give ourselves freedom to know another person well enough to judge — or better yet, to appreciate — the content of his or her character.
Jefferson, Lincoln, and King each stood up at a time when things were very much off track and discontent was the order of the day. But, rather than simply fanning the angry flames of that discontent, they appealed to what Lincoln would call “the better angels of our nature.”
We live in another age of discontent boiling around us. It’s a time rich with fault-finders, but painfully short of visionaries and pathfinders.
Who among us can summon once more those better angels? Who can shift our gaze away from what is wrong? Who can carry our words beyond who’s to blame? In the middle of a nightmare, who will dare to dream?