MLK Celebration: He Had a Dream

Friday, January 13, 2012

We gather here today to celebrate the 83rd birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to remember his leadership and remind ourselves of the challenges he issued, to us as a nation and to us as individuals.  We still mourn his death.  He’s been gone over 40 years now, more years than he spent on this Earth.  But the meaning of his life, the importance of his dream, lives on.

I want to talk about Dr. King’s dream today, what it meant in the context of 1963, when he pronounced that dream from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  And I want to talk about what that dream means now, in the context of our lives in 2012.

I still get chills down my spine when I read or hear the words of Dr. King’s “I have a dream speech.”  I can close my eyes and see the grainy black and white television pictures that brought his best-known sermon into my home.  I can still hear his voice, in the gracious space of memory, his cadences and pauses, proclaiming a vision that inspired dramatic changes in this land, and, indeed, in this world.  We all know the words, the living words that still speak to us today: “I have a dream 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.”  Say it with me: “I have a dream 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.”

In 1963, when Dr. King stood before the tens of thousands there in person and the millions more watching on television, and pronounced those words, he reminded us that his dream was “deeply rooted in the American 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.”  All men and all women, too.

In 1963, the landmark Civil Rights legislation of the mid-1960s was not yet part of U.S. law.  A Civil War, a Constitutional amendment and a Supreme Court decision had not been sufficient to guarantee the rights of all U.S. citizens.  The ruthless creativity of those who were determined to prevent such a thing made further legislation and further enforcement necessary.  When Dr. King spoke of his dream, we did not yet have the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  We did not yet have the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  We did not yet have the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1964, or the Fair Housing Law of 1968.  Can it truly be over four decades since those crucial laws were passed?  

For many young people today, Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement are ancient history, something they study about in school.  We are challenged to make Dr. King’s legacy more than a distant memory, or some facts to memorize in preparation for a final exam, for his dream is not yet fully realized, and until it is, all of us, no matter race or ethnicity or gender, all are diminished until that dream becomes reality for everyone.   When even a single U.S. citizen is denied the opportunity for an education, a safe place to live, a good job, a life free from discrimination and all its ugly companions, then we are all hurt, we are all less than we are capable of being.  In Dr. King’s words, “We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  Justice for all.  Righteousness for all.

As I stand before you here today, I well remember the events of Dr. King’s life and I know what his work meant to me.  Yet I know that I cannot fully understand what Dr. King means to my African American brothers and sisters.  It is easy for me to recall the bad old days and say how far we have come in the intervening years.  Sports, the military, and other occupations and opportunities where black and white can meet as equals, can work together toward a common goal, can individually and collectively come to realize that each and every one of us is a singular person of value and worth, not to be judged or regarded on a single element of our identity, but rather on a more complete understanding of who we are, have brought us a long way in the last 40 years.

Yet, individual friendships and individual understandings are not enough to surmount the vast challenges we still face together.  There is still anger in the black community, and much of it is just.  Despite it all, despite over 40 years of Civil Rights law and the improvements it has brought, there is still suffering and injustice in America that is based on racial prejudice.  We cannot stop, we cannot pause, we cannot reach a plateau and go no further.  Dr. King would tell us that he’d been to the mountaintop and he’d looked over and seen the promised land of equality.  We must constantly remind ourselves that we cannot look over and see the Promised Land until we get to that mountaintop, and to get to that mountaintop, we must keep climbing.  We all know a little something about the rewards of the journey, and about the grace and beauty and peace you can see from the top of a mountain. From that mountain top today we see the Dr. King Memorial at the US Capital Mall along with President Lincoln, President Jefferson, and President Roosevelt.

Recently, I had the honor and privilege to visit with Judge Damon Keith, who has an honorary degree from BGSU, and serves on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.  He was appointed to the position by former President Carter and as a federal district judge by President Johnson.   Judge Keith received his undergraduate degree from WV State University and law degree from Howard University.  He is a native of Detroit but went to Charleston, WV because it was his aunt that had him come there because her husband was President of WV State.  In 1949 after completing a law degree at Howard University, having served in a segregated military, he had to work as a janitor because of the limited options.  Judge Keith is one of the first African American judges on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and he remembers when there were no African American federal judges or in the state of Michigan and now we have an African American President.  Much as changed in his lifetime.

I grew up in the 1960s and attended an integrated school system.  Because our parents worked together at the same resort, the school did not seem racially divided.  In fact, even though it was the 1960s I was so pleased that my eight grade English teacher was African American, and was a true inspiration to all of her students.  We were taught to respect each other and to value each other in a small town that was full of caring individuals.  As MLK said in one of his speeches, “We must learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or perish together as fools”.

In fact, I checked to determine when the first African Americans entered or received degrees from my previous universities.  At WVU it was the 1940’s, at Auburn the first African American student was admitted in 1964, and at BGSU it was 1943 with Anna Mae Thomas of Sandusky (worked for Dr. Prout – superintendent of Sandusky Schools) – died last year at 100 – six scholarships in her name.

MLK would be proud of the changes that have taken place in the United States over the past approximately 50 years.  Yet, there is still much work to be done.  Whether we examine our unemployment rates, our high school dropout rates or our criminal offenses, we still live in a world where justice and equality must be a part of our everyday life and segregation, although not allowed, still exists.  It is incumbent on each of us to make this a better world for others who have not become a part of economic and social justice for all.  As MLK said in his I have a dream speech.  “When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when 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 spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last,. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”