“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.”
So spoke the Rev. Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington, words of hope that will ring forever.
“Behold, here comes the dreamer. Let us slay him and we shall see what becomes of his dream.”
So reads a plaque in the Memphis hotel room where King was murdered five years later, felled by a rifle shot that continues to echo with tragedy, loss and divisiveness.
Few had heard of the young Baptist preacher when Rosa Parks refused to give up her Montgomery bus seat in 1955. When the boycott ended a year later, King was the undisputed leader of the civil rights movement, a rise made inevitable by his courage, his dedication to nonviolent — yet militant — action, his unparalleled ability to articulate the longing for freedom and linking of that longing to religious values and the American dream.
Today is set aside in his memory. It is a holiday many will enjoy, but one that few will observe. Of those who do, some will try to smear him with mud, others will try to scrub him to antiseptic cleanliness. The truth lies in between and acknowledging that does nothing to blunt his powerful message.
King was a hero, but he also was human, with all the flaws that implies. He was a leader, but a leader who followed his conscience, not opinion polls.
After he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King could have removed himself from the fray and preached in comfort from the pulpit of celebrity. He did not. He took the battle north, where he and his fellow marchers were met by hostility, by angry mobs, by neo-Nazis and white-sheeted Klansmen. He became an early, outspoken critic of the War in Vietnam, turning the government from civil-rights ally to foreign-policy enemy. He preached not just legal equality, but also economic equality, thus alienating his well-heeled liberal supporters. He paid with his life.
And this country has been paying ever since. Racial equality has been achieved in statute, but not in reality. Injustice is met not with peaceful, determined resistance, but with looting, burning, scapegoating. The expression of prejudice and intolerance is no longer an abomination, but a constitutional right.
On April 3, 1968, the eve of his death, King spoke these chilling, prophetic words to striking Memphis garbage collectors: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.” King blazed the trail, he dreamed the dream. It is for to us to follow the trail and to make the dream come true.