Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Dream Revisited: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Then and Now

August 28, 1963
United States National Mall
August 28, 2013 marks fifty years since Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a massive crowd of tens of thousands of Americans, and delivered one of the most powerful, culturally impactful speeches in history.  This anniversary is a powerful reminder to all Americans of how far the U.S. has come in improving civil rights and race relations, but also cause to reflect on how much further we have to go to achieve the equitable, just, and peaceful society that King and so many other civil rights leaders dreamed of.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr, backed by the monument to Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. President who abolished slavery, delivered an emotional speech on the grounds of National Mall of the U.S. in which he laid out the history of struggle and oppression faced by African Americans in the United States.    At the time, the legacy of Jim Crow  laws, which were designed to keep African Americans from obtaining full membership in U.S. society despite being freed from slavery, led to vast gaps in income, education, housing, and basic rights between African Americans and their fellow Americans of other races.  King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech laid out a stinging condemnation of an America that could ignore so much injustice for so long, but also a message of hope.

King’s hope lay in the U.S. Constitution, and that Americans and America’s judicial system would realize that we had the foundation to provide for equal rights and protections for our citizens all along, we simply were not applying it.  While many focus on his eloquent words in dreaming for a world in which his children would be “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” fewer recall that King did not just lay out a speech of dreams—he provided solutions.

King cited the U.S. Constitution, stating:  “In a sense we have come to our nation’s capitol to cash a check.  When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.  This note was a promise that all men, yes black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  In this brief passage near the beginning of his speech, King provides the answer to America’s racial woes—enact the U.S. Constitution.  Live its true words.  Harness its true meaning, and apply it for the betterment of all Americans.

 Appealing to both our sense of justice and our hopes for continual progress, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was a legendary American event.  Today, it serves as a reminder of past injustices, as well as an inspiration that Americans continue to rely on to guide our hopes and actions towards an ever more peaceful, tolerant, and just future.
August 24, 2013
United States National Mall

In recognition of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” thousands gathered on the U.S. National Mall this past Saturday to demonstrate respect for King and the Civil Rights Movements’ legacy, as well as to focus attention on modern injustices.  Speakers ranged from the civil rights icon Rev. Al Sharpton, to a Congressman from Georgia, John Lewis, who is the only living speaker from the original March on Washington.

While many of the speakers focused on the progress made since King’s historic speech in 1963, such as the numerous gains made socially and economically by African Americans in the past fifty years, there was also much discussion about modern racial issues that are being debated in the U.S.

One major example is the Trayvon Martin case, which involved the shooting death of an African American teenager by a Latino male after an altercation.  Many argue that the justice system failed Trayvon Martin by failing to convict his shooter as guilty of committing murder, and that the perceived lack of justice for Trayvon is symbolic of a lack of justice for African Americans, particularly young black men, still endemic in American society.

Another current topic of racial discussion in the U.S. is the modification to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the U.S. Supreme Court recently ordered.  Many speakers at the event focused heavily on this topic.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was originally passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as a countermeasure to racist legislative practices in some states and districts that changed voting laws to ensure that as few minorities as possible would be eligible to vote.  The Voting Rights Act outlawed voter discrimination, and required states and districts in the U.S. with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval before making changes to their voting laws.  This past year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, stating that the U.S. Congress needs to design a new formula to determine which states or voting districts can still be considered “racist,” noting that the most recent formula is almost forty years old and is no longer relevant.  Many speakers at Saturday’s march believe that this decision will jeopardize African Americans in areas of the U.S. that they think will still change voting laws and resume voter discrimination.

Looking back on the historic event of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Americans of all races can proudly note the inarguable progress made over the past fifty years.  We have, and continue to strive towards, fulfilling the dreams of King, and the dreams of all who shared in the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement.  However, as previously noted, we have not perfected our society.  Much debate does and should continue about racial equality, discrimination, our justice system, and many other aspects of American society in which many believe we still have much room for improvement.  As we move forward, we remain guided by the principles of our Constitution, and dedicated to furthering King’s dream into a reality.

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