A common question asked at this time each year is, “What would Martin Luther King, Jr. think of the times in which we live?”
Those who ask have a nasty tendency to then answer, and almost always the answer is one with which they would agree. The exercise has the unseemly effect of putting words into a dead man’s mouth.
The truth is, we cannot know what King would have thought of America or its discourse in 2023. An independent thinker, brilliant orator, bold crusader for the truth, savvy politician, with an extraordinary ability to seemingly see into the future, King’s message to us today, if he were still alive, would likely not fit so tidily into any box we would now choose to put him. Unfortunately for all of us, the chance to truly know his thoughts were stolen from the world by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, robbing generations of his intellect and compassion while also assigning almost divine-like qualities to the wisdom he left behind.
All we have are his words to guide us now. They were spoken at a time very different than the one in which we live, yet they can still reach across the boundaries of history to inform our current moment. And what it seems King is yelling to us from back in 1963, when he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., is that the only way forward is together.
That Aug. 28, 1963 tour-de-force is one each American should read, along with Frederick Douglas’ Fourth of July speech delivered in 1852, and Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. All of them speak to a divided America. All of them speak to injustice and calamities that had befallen so many. In the case of Douglas’ speech, the raw emotions can be felt nearly 200 years later. In King’s speech, one senses the mixture of desperation and hope that guided each sentence, at once acknowledging the long, uncertain road ahead while also believing that the destination would be worth it.
We are still trying to arrive at that destination. And for those of us in 2023, it starts with acknowledging that we’ve taken so many steps forward since that hot summer day in 1963. To deny all of the momentum since that time is not just to deny reality but also to dishonor the memory of King and his fellow activists who bled and sweat for the types of freedoms taken for granted by most today.
Those brave men and women did much of the heavy lifting.
But the work didn’t end then. It continues to this day, and our job in this generation is not to try and fix all that is wrong but to continue pushing forward. Change rarely happens quickly, and as much as we’d like it to, it almost never arrives on our preferred timetable. Yet, as long as progress is being made, then the injustices of today won’t live to see a distant tomorrow, and the problems of tomorrow will be smaller and more manageable than the ones in our current moment.
The question is, do we want to push forward together or are we committed to a divided country when it comes to race?
“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. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama … little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Those are the words of King, perhaps the best known from his “I Have a Dream” speech. They speak to us precisely because of his reference to children … his reference to the future.
We’ve made admirable strides towards making King’s dream a reality, but we aren’t there yet. There is much that needs doing. His dream must be our goal, and to abandon that would be to prove King’s faith in us was unfounded.