August 28, 2013, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems that everyone has something to say about the event. I decided that I needed to add my voice to those who remember the famous March on Washington. While standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, civil rights leader King captivated the nation with his speech. Approximately 250,000 people joined this “March on Washington.”
I knew nothing about the march or the speech; at least, I do not remember anything particular about it. In fact, I never saw a real-live “Negro” until I was a senior in high school and had moved away from the farm. I know there were Blacks in my second high school – some even in my classes – but I had no opportunities to interact with them. By August 1963 I had graduated from high school and was involved in my own life.
I knew there were problems in our nation concerning the relationship between white people and black people, but I understood little about them. I had no previous experiences with problems between “my people” and any other race. My mother grew up on an Indian Reservation and remained friends with many of her school mates for the rest of her life. Whenever we went to town, Mom always met some of her “Indian” friends and stopped to visit with them. I too attended school with the “Indians,” took classes with them, and considered them my friends. They were some of the most beautiful people I ever met! I always felt that my Native American friends were equal to me; in fact, I knew that in many respects they were superior to me. This is probably the main reason why I could not understand why there were problems between the races.
I got a job at an Air Force Base a few years after I graduated from high school. There were numerous Black airmen on base, and some of them worked in my building with me. This was my first experience of interacting with Blacks. I remember a black Staff Sergeant whom I respected very much. I did not consider him as “different” than I; I considered him to be an intelligent and hard-working man who always dressed sharply and carried himself with confidence. We each had a job to do, and we each did our jobs.
Fast forward a few years until I was married and had small children of my own. I was in a checkout line in a store when my five-year-old daughter saw her first black person, a woman. She was so concerned about the color of the woman’s skin and wanted to know what was wrong with her skin. Her compassion was evident in her voice. I apologized to the woman for my daughter pointing at her and then proceeded to explain to my daughter that there was nothing wrong with the woman and that she was the same as us except she had a different color of skin. Since that time I have known and appreciated many black people and call them my friends. I still do not understand why there is a problem between the races!
Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. gave an elegant speech fifty years ago, some of which has been quoted many times. The most often quoted is the statement, “I have a 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.’ …
“I have a dream that 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.”
This is a dream that many people desire. I want to be judged by my character and not by the color of my skin. I want my children and grandchildren to be judged by the good they do and not for their white skin. I want my family to be respected for who we are and not be condemned for something done a long time ago by people we never even knew or even descended from!
Few people remember how Dr. King started his speech: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the `unalienable Rights’ of `Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked `insufficient funds.’
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
It seems that no matter what we do or how much we give, we can never repay this “check” that came back marked “insufficient funds.” How much longer will we be held responsible for things done many years ago? How much more do we have to pay?
Dr. King gave other speeches that are memorable but few are seldom quoted. On October 26, 1967, about four years after the Washington march, he spoke to a group of students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia. I wonder what kind of difference it would make in our world today if this speech were quoted more often.
“And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.
“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, seep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.
“If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”
Fifty years is a long time. The young adults of fifty years ago are now among the elderly. More than 250,000 people marched with Dr. King in 1963 while “tens of thousands” came to commemorate his march in 2013. Fifty years ago people understood what real racism was; now people call everything “racism” and people “racist” if they have a different point of view!
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave good counsel for members of every race. Every American should be equal under the law; each one of us should have the Right to pursue our dreams and have life, liberty and the opportunity to be happy. I believe that it is time for each of us to step back and take another look at where we are. We live in a nation where a half black man is the President and a black man sits on the Supreme Court. We have another black man who became a famous brain surgeon, and still other black men and black women who sit in our halls of Congress. We have black millionaires and blacks leading in every area of our lives. How much more equal can we get? How much longer do we have to fight this “racial war”? How much more do white Americans have to pay before we have paid that “check” in full? I have a dream of an America where my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren can live in peace with people of all colors!