This week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a significant civil rights event that drew upwards of a quarter-million people and was the setting for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The march was hardly a blacks-only event. Estimates suggest about two-thirds of participants were African-American while the other third was predominantly white. Unlike in previous demonstrations — predominantly in the Deep South — they did not square off against each other. On this occasion they crowded together side by side, holdings hands and singing songs of faith and of freedom.
The sea of American humanity formed a tapestry of black and white across the crowded Washington Mall. Still, this historical gathering to promote breakthroughs in American justice and human relationships did not necessarily represent a microcosm of the United States at the time.
Racial equality might have been considered the law of the land, but it was still the practice of citizens across the country to fall short of the highest standard in matters like housing, employment and pay, education and access to restaurants and motels. Churches (not all, but many) practiced segregation. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation more than a century earlier had eliminated plantation slavery, but racial inclusion was still an elusive dream in modern America in 1963.
King, in excerpts from his message, said it this way:
“But 100 years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition….
“Now is the time 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…,” King challenged.
“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice,” he cautioned. “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone…,” King preached.
“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,’” he said. “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 a table of brotherhood….
“I have a dream that my four 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,” he said.
“I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers….
“This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, ‘My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring….’
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” King thundered in closing.
The nature of racial divide suggests that the “dream” of Martin Luther King Jr., who would be assassinated within five years, would not be achieved overnight. Nor would it likely reach fruition in a single generation. The hope of a united nation, the likes of which King envisioned, will require eternal vigilance if the nation is to progress even closer toward it.
Progress has been made, to be sure. But evidence abounds both in current events and in day-to-day living in most communities that we are not there yet. Like the best things in life, the dream is a spiritual one. It is a dream of reconciliation and renewal. Historically, it is a dream that too many in church life have not embraced. This is yet another reason it is still very much a dream and not a full-blown reality.
On the 50th anniversary, it is time to passionately renew the dream for the good of every citizen of every color.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.