Our country has changed dramatically since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, but few would argue that we have lived up to King’s dream. In fact, it seems the clock is winding backward.
Fifty years ago today, more than 200,000 people stood shoulder to shoulder on the National Mall in Washington to demand equal rights for African Americans. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom came to be known as, perhaps, the most important mass demonstration in our nation’s history.
It was on that day, Aug. 28, 1963, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It had been a century since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, yet Jim Crow policies that arose after Reconstruction remained in effect, and Klansmen were waging a campaign of bombings, beatings and murder to turn back the civil rights movement.
“Now is the time,” King told those assembled at his feet, “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. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
Our nation, of course, has changed dramatically since that day. But few would argue that we have lived up to King’s dream. There remain “lonely island[s] of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” And, many of our fellow citizens are still “languishing in the corners of American society,” finding neither justice nor equality.
Today, in fact, it seems the clock is winding backward.
The U.S. Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, the crowning achievement of the movement. Predictably, we are seeing states enact new laws designed to disenfranchise voters by creating burdensome requirements when there is scant evidence of any significant voter fraud.
King spoke of George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor “whose lips [were] dripping with the words of interposition and nullification” and who tried to defy court orders to desegregate schools. Today, we hear those exact words – nullification and interposition – from mainstream figures who claim, just like the segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s, that states can simply ignore federal laws that they do not like.
King spoke, too, of the “chains of discrimination.” Today, those chains still weigh down so many.
They weigh on the young black men who face racial profiling and injustice in our criminal justice system.
They weigh on the immigrants who are providing vital services but are denied fundamental protections.
They weigh on the poor children, particularly those of color, who are pushed out of school into the criminal justice system for trivial offenses.
They weigh on the LGBT people who, in most places, still cannot legally marry the person they love.
They weigh on the weak, the infirm and the poor who are being told by those born with a silver spoon in their mouth that they just want “free stuff.”
“There are those,” Dr. King said, “who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’”
The answer was, not “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Those words, adapted from Amos 5:24, are the words we chose to engrave on the Civil Rights Memorial along with the names of 40 martyrs who died for equality at the hands of violent racists.
The Memorial stands a reminder of the sacrifices of those who marched for justice.
It also reminds us every day that the work is not finished. The march continues.