Forty-eight years ago Sunday, when Martin Luther King Jr. was about to make his historic speech on the National Mall, I was huddled close to the statue of Abraham Lincoln, tapping on a portable typewriter, making last-minute changes to my own speech. As the newly elected chair of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, speaking at the March on Washington was one of my first important actions. Dr. King spoke tenth; I was sixth. Today, I am the last surviving speaker from the march.
When I think back on that day, and the hundreds of thousands of people who responded to the call to march on Washington, there is no question that many things have changed. Then, Martin Luther King Jr. was a controversial figure taking risks so that his voice might be heard. Today, the mere mention of his speech — and its powerful “I have a dream” refrain — evokes hope for the future, stirring memories of the past and mandates for change, but the context in which Dr. King delivered those words was quite different.
In April of 1963, just a few months before the march, he had written his now famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” advocating the moral imperative of non-violent protest by faith leaders. In May, the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had used police dogs and fire hoses on children engaged in peaceful protest in the city. And in June, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was killed by a member of the Ku Klux Klan outside of Evers’s home near Jackson, Miss.
The March on Washington represented a coalition of labor leaders, civil rights organizations and faith groups united in their call for governments and members of civilized society to defend human dignity, especially at a time when that dignity was under siege.
We have come a long way since then. If Martin Luther King Jr. were here today, he would take heart in the fact that the vestiges of legalized segregation are gone. He would be amazed that a likeness of him had been placed on the National Mall. And he would be gratified that the United States had elected its first African-American president.
Yes, we have come a great distance — but we still have a great distance to go. King’s speech was a cogent statement about the need for civil rights, but its deepest purpose was about much more. His dream was about more than racial justice, though racism often represents the greatest moral stain on our society. His dream was about building a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being.
That effort is the true legacy of King’s dream. Were he alive today, it is telling that his message would still be essentially the same. It is troubling that unemployment is so high — indeed, far higher than it was in 1963 — and that we are so caught up in details of deficits and debt ceilings that we question whether government has any moral duty to serve the poor, help feed the hungry and assist the sick. Today, Dr. King would still be asking questions that reveal the moral meaning of our policies. And he would still challenge our leaders to answer those questions — and to act on their beliefs.
Among those leaders, I know he would take a special interest in President Obama — not only because he is the first African-American to sit in the Oval Office, but because Dr. King recognized the power of one man to transform a nation. He would say that the president has the capacity to unify America, to bring us together as one people, one family, one house. He would say that a leader has the ability to inspire people to greatness, but that to do so he must be daring, courageous and unafraid to demonstrate what he is made of.
As a minister, never elected to any public office, Dr. King would tell this young leader that it is his moral obligation to use his power and influence to help those who have been left out and left behind. He would encourage him to get out of Washington, to break away from handlers and advisers and go visit the people where they live. He would urge him to meet the coal miners of West Virginia; to shake the hands of the working poor in our large urban centers, juggling mutiple jobs to try to make ends meet; to go to the barrios of the Southwest; and to visit native Americans on their reservations. He would urge Obama to feel the hurt and pain of those without work, of mothers and their children who go to bed hungry at night, of the families living in shelters after losing their homes, and of the elderly who chose between buying medicine and paying the rent.
Dr. King would say that a Nobel Peace Prize winner can and must find a way to demonstrate that he is a man of peace, a man of love and non-violence. He would say it is time to bring an end to war and get our young men and women out of harm’s way. Dr. King would assert without hesitation that war is obsolete, that it destroys the very soul of a nation, that it wastes human lives and natural resources.
A. Philip Randolph, the dean of the civil rights movement and the convener of the March on Washington, once advocated creating what he called a “freedom budget” that would be a collection point for the resources government would use to help create jobs, rebuild infrastructure, clean up the waterways and make sure we have clean air to breathe and nutritious food to eat. I think Dr. King would ask why we couldn’t do something like this today.
He would say that Obama’s election represents a significant step toward laying down the burden of race, but that this task is not yet complete. The election of 2008 was a major down payment on Dr. King’s dream, but it did not fulfill it. When one member of Congress calls the president a “tar baby” on a radio show and when another cries out “You lie!” during a State of the Union address, it is more than clear that we still do not understand the need to respect human dignity despite our differences.
Dr. King would tell this young president to do what he can to end discrimination based on race, color, religious faith and sexual orientation. He would say that righteous work makes its own way. There is no need to put a finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. There is no need to match each step to the latest opinion poll. The people of this country recognize when a leader is trying to do what is right. Take a stand, he would say. Go with your gut. Let the people of this country see that you are fighting for them and they will have your back.
There will be opposition, and it might become ugly. Dr. King faced frequent threats on his life and the bombing of his home, and he and his family were in constant danger. He had no protection beyond his faith. But he believed in the power of the truth to expose what is wrong in America. He often quoted the notion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And the reason it does is because of the central goodness of humankind.
Martin Luther King Jr. believed that once people heard the truth, their tendency to bend toward what is right would pave the way for goodness to prevail. And it still can.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) has been a member of the House of Representatives since 1987.