“I have a dream.” Four simple words that define the hope of every human. But they also define the life of a man; a leader; an American hero.
Aug. 28, 1963 was a hot day in Washington, D.C. Some 200,000 people surrounded the big reflecting pool at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.
They had come to listen to a southern minister whose lyrical voice and inspiring words had galvanized the civil rights movement. There had been other leaders, but in the glow of his power and passion shone a vision of what was possible; even inevitable.
The Rev. Martin Luther King led from the front. On countless marches, he had boldly led African-Americans and supportive whites down streets in some of the most racially divided cities in America. He had been arrested, even spent time in jail. But southern whites were rapidly finding out that while you can imprison a man, you cannot imprison an idea.
In the torpid air of that humid summer day, he rose and began to speak.
His words, rich in imagery, painted vivid pictures of suffering, but also of hope. He acknowledged that even though slavery had ended with the Civil War, blacks were still not free, “… sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” America had written a check for freedom with the Constitution, a check that, for blacks, had bounced.
In a voice ringing with conviction, he said that the time had come to act. The luxury of waiting for change was gone, replaced by “… the fierce urgency of now.” He vowed that there would be no rest until the rights of white Americans became the rights of all Americans.
“The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
And yet, he spoke words of caution.
He urged people to work within the law and not wage the battle with bitterness and hatred, but with love. He reminded them that not all whites were enemies; that many stood with them, and had also marched and suffered. He stated that the destiny of Negroes and whites was a shared one.
Dr. King spoke not only of legal equality, but social as well. Blacks should be able to freely sit in any restaurant, lodge in any motel or hotel, drink from any water fountain.
The right to vote should be free of poll taxes and other inventions that disenfranchised them. And to receive just treatment from police and the courts.
He acknowledged those who had come to Washington that day fresh from brutal and bitter treatment. But he encouraged them to return home and continue to work for change with pride and dignity; and not give in to despair.
Then, in words that electrified the crowd, and changed the hearts of those who heard them across the country and around the world, he spoke of his dream.
That all men are created equal.
That one day all Americans would be brothers and sisters.
That even the south could be transformed into “… an oasis of freedom and justice.”
That one day children of both races could link arms and walk together.
And that America would one day be a place where all people would be “… judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
This was Dr. King’s dream.
His had faith that this dream would one day become reality; that Americans would eventually act as one nation.
And in the light of that unity, freedom would ring.
In that moment, all Americans, “black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” would celebrate in unison:
“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
It has been 47 years. While we have come a long way, we still haven’t reached the “oasis of freedom and justice” envisioned so clearly and passionately on that day. But we continue to struggle forward, one painful step at a time. Our progress has been slow, but it is still progress, nonetheless.
On Monday, America will celebrate the birthday of one of its greatest heroes. For some, it will be a day off; for others, just another day. But I urge all to take the time on that day to read the words of Rev. King’s dream, or listen to it online. As his words echo across the decades from that hot August day, let us vow to make his dream our dream. Let his vision become our truth.
And that truth will set us free.
Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset.