Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. day, the federal holiday set to honor the life and legacy of the famed civil rights leader.
King might be best known for his “I have a dream,” speech, a 1963 call for civil and economic rights and an end to institutionalized racism in the United States. It’s also considered to be among the most inspiring – and quite possibly the greatest – pieces of oratory in American history.
In that speech, King famously proclaims that he has, “a dream.”
“I still have a dream,” he said. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 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 one day, on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“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 today.
“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists… one day right down in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
“This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
This is just a short segment of King’s remarks, of course, and nearly sixty years on from that date we would hope, like King, that we could being to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony.”
We would hope that little black boys and girls born then grew up judged “by the content of their character” and not by the color of their skin.
And while situations did undoubtedly improve a little in the intervening years – anti-miscegenation laws banning interracial marriage were declared unconstitutional in 1967 and some economic opportunities have improved – we still haven’t come nearly as far as we’d expect in that time frame.
The time between 1963 and 2021, 58 years, is a literal lifetime, and yet black men are still incarcerated at a higher percentage that whites. Black people, especially black men, as a percentage of the population, are more likely to be shot by police responding to an incident.
These aren’t indictments of the individuals who work as law enforcement officers or prosecutors in our individual communities. It’s an acknowledgment of a system and institutions that still have a long way to go to create that freedom and equality Dr. King called for. The equality our founding fathers held to be “self evident” truths.
The sons of Georgia slaveowners and the sons of Georgia slaves may be able to sit down together in brotherhood, but when they get up from that “table of brotherhood” there are still some Americans who will refuse to see them as equals. We may pay lip service to the words of MLK Jr’s “dream,” especially on this holiday, but we’re still a long way from achieving the fullness of the dream.
This week, we ask you to pledge to do more to keep that dream alive in your heart and in your actions, not just on Monday but throughout the year, so that next year, and every year after, we can make more of the progress it’s taken us nearly 60 years to achieve so far. And maybe make it a little faster.