It was a riveting and thought-provoking speech, one that defined Martin Luther King as a charismatic and compassionate man.
Addressing approximately 250,000 people at what has become known as the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, King opened his speech with mention of Abraham Lincoln, “a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today.”
Still reading from his original speech, King continues, “America has given the Negro people a bad check,” a check, he added, that has been marked insufficient funds.
King then pauses, as described by many who were in attendance that day, ignores his notes, and then uttered, “I say to you my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. It is a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Although King used the “I have a dream” phrase a week earlier while giving a speech in Chicago, it was the “I have a dream” speech, given from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that people remember.
“I have dream,” King reiterated over and over.
When Luther died at the hand of an assassin on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel on March 29, 1968, in Memphis, I believe the true essence of that dream died with him.
Our country, sadly enough, has a long and despicable history of oppressing people.
Christopher Columbus comes quickly to mind. On Oct. 14, 1492, two days after Columbus encountered the native people of the Americas, he wrote in his journal that “with 50 men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.” After his second voyage, Columbus sent back a consignment of natives to become slaves.
Fast forward to the 1860s and the years leading up to the Civil War.
Fast forward to the 1950s and the anti-segregation Montgomery bus boycott.
Fast forward to the 1960s and the North Carolina lunch counter sit-ins.
Fast forward to today.
I believe that almost 50 years later we are still passing around that bad check marked with insufficient funds. I believe we are stilling standing in the symbolic shadow of that great American Abraham Lincoln.
I see and hear about it on the news. I see and read about it online. Sometimes, much to my sadness, I see and hear it with my own eyes and ears, those unkind words or those looks of disdain, respectively.
I have come to learn that the chains of slavery and oppression go far beyond the physical nature of subordination, humiliation and cruelty. Those chains reach deep into hearts, into minds and into souls.
On that historical August day, King ended his speech with a plea for freedom.
King started with New Hampshire: “Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.”
King ended with Mississippi: “Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill in Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring!”
Meanwhile, let’s stop passing around that bad check marked with insufficient funds. Instead, let’s balance the checkbook for all people.
Let’s move away from the symbolic shadow of Lincoln. Instead, let’s move into the light that we as a nation can create anew, a light of compassion for and acceptance of all people.
Let’s finally stop chasing King’s dream. Let’s make it a reality. Let’s rise up and live out our nation’s creed “that all men are created equal.”
Alvia Lewis Frey is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.