Martin Luther King Jr. must have been smiling on Inauguration Day. A dream of nearly half a century had come to pass. A person of color took the oath of office as President of the United States.
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall on Aug. 28, 1963, does not specifically include a dream that one day a black would be elected to the highest office in the land. His dreams of things to come were more lofty than that. But the Barack Obama inauguration suggested monumental progress.
As the prophetic Baptist preacher looked out across a sea of hopeful humanity — the culmination of the largest demonstration in American history — he told the crowd simply and honestly, “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.”
It is interesting that the new President described the occasion of his inauguration last week in much the same way.
King spoke to a crowd of people still seeking justice, a part of the American population still waiting to realize the promises of freedom. Just a week ago, the inauguration crowd was made up of celebrants who cheered realized dreams.
King cautioned against mutual distrust: “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.”
Destiny and freedom that are bound across once-impossible barriers must have been a scandalous thought to many in Martin Luther King Jr.’s hearing on that hot August day. Perhaps whites and blacks alike were offended by the suggestion that they needed each other.
For King, the dream was more than an appeal for isolated equality. The preacher thundered out the necessity of mutual respect, brotherhood and hand-holding between white and black youngsters. The man was appealing for relationships to be forged that would shatter the myth that there is more than one human race.
He painted the picture with beautiful, startling, scandalous language.
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.”
He said: “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.”
Little did the civil rights leader know that only 18 days later — on Sept. 15, 1963 — the Ku Klux Klan would bomb Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and kill four beautiful little girls because of the color of their skin.
King 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.”
He appealed to scripture when he said: “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.”
He said: “This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. 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.”
King had the audacity to dream “in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment.” Our new President echoes a similar sentiment when he appeals for cooperation among political leaders and a commitment on the part of the citizenry to greet ominous challenges.
King was preaching when he said: “When we let freedom 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!"
George Wallace, the face of Southern racism during King’s day, repented of his racism some years before his death and asked forgiveness of those he persecuted in word and action. “Free at last!” became his song.
If King were with us today, he likely would echo the sentiments of President Obama by saying, “We’ve made progres but we’re not there yet.”
Two thousand nine is not an end, but a beginning.