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Saturday marked 41 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. One wonders the extent to which King could have had a sense that day, as he climbed the steps and positioned himself in front of the image of Lincoln, that the speech he was about to deliver would become a defining moment in American history.
What made King’s speech so great? How could a black pastor, with roots a few generations out of slavery, ascend from the South and speak to a nation with words that would find a place in American history alongside the words of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln?
I think it is crucial to appreciate that King spoke first as an American. A central point that he drove home was that racial injustice is an American problem and that the destinies of black Americans and white Americans are intertwined. A crime committed is as much a problem for the perpetrator as for the victim.
Because King was able to scale the heights and see America’s racial problems from the perspective of the ideals and truths in which this nation is rooted, he understood that the truths that informed the ideals of a descendant of slaves were the same truths that informed the ideals of otherwise great men who owned slaves.
Because King waged his battle from these heights, this man with many reasons to be bitter lectured against bitterness, with many reasons to hate lectured about love, with many reasons to be violent preached nonviolence, and with many reasons to play on divisions spoke about brotherhood.
One way to appreciate King’s greatness and the power of the message he delivered is to look at history. Much of the blood that has been shed has been the result of political demagogues rising up and exploiting moments not so different from what America looked like in 1963. Times of stress and frustration, when injustice and suffering are clear and manifest, are times that are ripe for political demagogues.
A man less than Dr. King could have played to the passions of the crowd and consolidated power through the politics of hate, blame and envy. He could have talked about two Americas and haves and have-nots.
Instead, Dr. King talked about a common destiny, a brotherhood of man and a free nation under God. He appealed to those in power to recall the eternal truths and ideals that make this nation great and to understand the extent to which those ideals had been lost and compromised. He reminded us that those truths and ideals are the unifying principles of our nation, and that they define the American community. He appealed to blacks to focus on those truths and ideals and not on that part of the nation that turned away from them.
Dr. King had a great impact. But as we look at communities around our country today, it is sadly clear that much of his message still has not been learned.
The bitterness and violence that is so rooted today in many of our black communities shows that they have not gotten Dr. King’s message. The statistics are clear that black families are, on average, in far worse shape today than they were in 1963 when Dr. King gave his famous speech. These statistics – family breakdown, illegitimacy, abortion, crime – are living testimony to the extent to which blacks chose the path of politics and political demagoguery rather than the path of faith, tradition and personal responsibility on which to build their lives after the Civil Rights Act was enacted.
We can also see that Dr. King’s message is widely lost in many parts of the country outside of the black community. The bishop of my church just returned from Africa, where he had witnessed the tragedies taking place in Sudan and its neighboring countries. His first observation to me upon his return was that Americans are losing perspective of the magnitude and nature of their good fortune. As despots slaughter innocent people on the other side of the world, we have many here who define oppression as any resistance to cast aside every tradition that defines a nation under God in order to legitimize every imaginable human deviant proclivity.
The social statistics in the white community show the same alarming deterioration since the 1960s as in the black community. Illegitimacy rates among white women today exceed those of black women in the 1960s. Divorce rates and abortion have soared in all communities.
A famous rabbi who marched with Dr. King in Alabama and became a lifelong friend of his once remarked, “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America.”
This week all Americans should read the “I Have a Dream Speech” and acquaint themselves with the prophetic message of a very great American.