I’m writing this post on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech as it was presented at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. It’s fitting that this entry be more somber than others in the Alphabet of a New Blog series.
Many of you reading this only know Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement from history books, documentaries, news articles, TV broadcasts, and the like. I knew Dr. King from my place in the generation to whom he addressed his concerns. Too young to march with him, I later spent my college years singing “We Will Overcome” and rallying against continuing inequalities, the heady sense of social justice and righteousness fresh from the earlier Civil Rights marches. I worked on behalf of lowering the voting age to 18, figuring that a man deemed old enough to fight and perhaps die for our country should be considered old enough to vote. I’m still proud of my contribution to that success. It cost me a semester of perfect university grades to help get that job done, and I don’t regret my choice.
Our generation believed we would change the world, propelling it into an era of fairness and opportunity so we could concentrate on ending starvation and curing disease. We worked to protect natural resources as we promoted democracy, to extend education to everyone as we recorded memoirs of those who were underrepresented, and to welcome cordial communication with people of different faiths, creeds, languages, cultures, and national loyalties. That we tried is not diminished by the fact that we did not succeed in all areas.
I collapsed in tears and grief at the news that Dr. King had been assassinated on April 4, 1968. I mourned the loss of a leader whose presence even on something so removed as a TV screen could make you listen carefully and think about what he said, could make you want to change the world and find a dream of your own worth sacrificing everything for. His selflessness and dedication remain heroic to me. All that, despite knowing the rest of the story as well, that he was human with foibles and flaws. To be so inspired is in itself something worth having, a gift not everyone receives. The social awareness that Dr. King and others of that era awakened in me still motivates and guides me. I still think that laws should be universal and fair, I still believe that everyone should be treated with respect, I still yearn for a world that will be better for my children and grandchildren. Seeking noble is a hundred fold more and better than settling for base.
Dreams require nothing more than imagination and desire. Acting on your dreams demands an element of risk. People flirt with all kinds of risky behavior. Stories abound about people who skirted all the rules and flouted all the conventions to become wildly successful, the center of their own storm of adoration. But is that kind of public stardom the true measure of attaining one’s dreams? King used his iconoclastic charisma to promote his dream of a world that would be good for everyone, and he worked to achieve it with peaceful means. Does his message remain a staple of good faith among men because he was murdered or in spite of it? Would we still remember him and his dream, a dream that was the same for millions of Americans, if he’d died a natural death in old age?
The answer I think lies in the scope and breadth of King’s dream. He preached what he believed and he modeled what he preached. He marched against men armed with guns and hatred, but he marched with friends armed with faith and conviction. The dream was bigger than him and bigger than the generation that set it into motion, that stoked the fires of its continued movement. We still act on the tenets of the Civil Rights movement because the issues remain current, not all of them resolved, new ones demanding attention. The glory of his passionate pursuit of justice remains galvanizing. A new generation will pick up the banners and march again.
You have your dreams, I have mine. One of the ways that I pursue mine is through my writing, a dream I began to act on about 12 years ago. My stories are steeped with the moral fiber that fused in my soul when I was still in elementary school, listening to a Black man talk about things I couldn’t quite understand but would someday study and follow to ends I found natural. I don’t write with the profound insight of Dr. King or with his grasp of the currents that defined America. I don’t have his intellect for the pulse of people or the power of his ideas. But I was a child and a teenager moved by his words, and I saw his vision for justice and equality for everyone. It echoes in my writing, my characters trying to right a skewed world.
I hope you act on your dreams. I hope if you are 18, you vote. I hope you remember Dr. King and the history of a nation still struggling to implement the Constitution fairly. Because if you and I are free to write what we choose on public spaces like the Internet, it is partly because people like him had dreams about what was fair and right and dare to act on them more than 50 years ago.
May you rest in peace, Martin. May we all live in peace and freedom.