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.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
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.