“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
That first line of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s epic Aug. 28, 1963, “I Have A Dream” speech before 300,000 Americans during the March on Washington rang true with prophetic accuracy.
Today, 50 years later, King’s 17-minute, 1,589-word historic speech on that hot sunny day still resonates in its stylistic cadence, in its brutal historic imagery and, in its galvanizing impact on American civil-rights strides.
Today, textbooks on persuasive rhetoric routinely include that speech among sections labeled “Classic Arguments,” alongside those of Aristotle, Plato and Thomas Jefferson, for its mastery over logic, evidence, style and pathos. King’s passionate prose rippled from the crowds wading in the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool to the inner chambers of the U.S. Congress and Oval Office.
“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.”
Those and other pungent metaphors, apt analogies and deliberately repeated phrases powerfully captured the realities of racist America in 1963 — segregated schools and public places, state-sanctioned denial of voting rights, and bulldogs and bullets aimed at those who sought to change that unjust status quo.
To be sure, King would be proud of the achievements wrought from his hard work predicated on nonviolence, those of his contemporaries and their followers. But even in his wildest dreams King likely never would have imagined a black American sitting in the White House as president 45 years after that hot August day.
Yet in spite of such landmark achievements, most notably the nation-altering Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, not all of King’s words can be swept away into the archives of American history. Some sadly still ring true today.
“We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
This year’s action by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, coupled with efforts in many states to rein in voting hours and tighten voter requirements that many argue unfairly target minorities and the poor, have reignited voting rights as a hot-button civil-rights issue five decades after King’s protestations.
The struggle for economic equity also endures. Jobs served as a focal point of both the 1963 and 2013 marches on our nation’s capital. And though much progress has been achieved in reducing discrimination in the workplace and in moving minorities into top echelons of corporate America, the economic agenda of the civil-rights movement also remains incomplete. In Youngstown, for example, the unemployment rate for African Americans hovers at about 20 percent, or more than twice the level of the rate of the city’s overall population.
“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.”
Realization of even that key tenet of King’s dream also has been questioned. Some civil-rights leaders point to the resegregation of many urban American schools, “stop-and-frisk’’ policies of police departments and other forms of racial profiling to argue that skin color still takes priority over character content in many aspects of 21st century American life.
At last weekend’s march, many in the crowd carried signs demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teen many argue was profiled as a thug before being shot to death by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., last year. Speakers rightly or wrongly compared Martin to 14-year-old Emmett Till, who in 1955 was accused of whistling at a white woman and was kidnapped, beaten, and shot by two white men who were acquitted but later confessed the murder.
Even Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president, acknowledges brushes with racial profiling as a younger man being followed by security personnel in department stores. More recently, a crowd of students hurled racist epithets and burned images of Obama at the University of Mississippi on the historic night of his re-election last fall.
Today, as churches throughout the Mahoning Valley and the nation ring out peals of freedom at 3 p.m., Obama will stand on the hallowed ground of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the epochal speech of the iconic Baptist minister. As he does, he’ll likely recount the mercurial progress this nation has made over the past half-century in improving race relations and in lessening racial discrimination. He’s also likely to touch on those aspects of King’s dream that have been delayed, diminished, deferred or denied.
It will be those unfulfilled aspects of the assassinated leader’s vision for America that the nation’s larger and more diverse 21st century army of civil-rights troopers must continue to address using the same thoughtful, nonviolent strategies as King. The monumental progress achieved since 1963 illustrates that none of the remaining challenges should be insurmountable as long as all Americans continue to embrace King’s ideals and his dream, which, after all, represents nothing more than fulfillment of the American Dream.