Today is the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King. While many have participated in public discourse, there is no denial that Martin Luther King stands out as one of our nation’s most influential civil leaders. He held no office, but he held our attention. His passionate, yet restrained, leadership in the face of prejudices defied the odds and changed our country more dramatically than most of our elected leaders.
His most famous speech is best known by its repeated “I have a dream” refrain. The speech was given August 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, 100 years after Lincoln wrote his Emancipation Proclamation. In watching the speech again today it strikes me that Dr. King that day provided some lessons that our current political discourse should consider relearning. Here is a YouTube video of the entire speech and the crowd of about 200,000 people in attendance that day. I hope you’ll take the time to watch the entire 17+ minute video. After the video I’ll offer some thoughts on how it relates to today.
Lesson 1: We’re all in this together. As the cameras pan around you’ll notice that it is a mixed race crowd. Remember that this is 1963. Jim Crow laws were still in effect, “separate but equal” segregation was the norm (even if “equal” actually meant “unequal”), and it would be another year before enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And yet black and white, men and women, old and young all came together to listen to Dr. King and the other speakers. Our lesson is to remind ourselves that today, even with severe differences of opinion on the direction we should move forward, we are ALL Americans. We all want the best future for our country and our children and our grandchildren. We are not evil. We are our own neighbors. We must remember this.
Lesson 2: Passion does not mean vitriol. It is clear in the video that Dr. King is passionate about the need for change. His voice has the cadence of the Baptist minister that he was, with its melodic and inspirational call for fulfillment of our Founders’ guarantee that the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness applied to all men. And yet with all his passion he specifically calls for peaceful change and rejects violence and hatred. Our lesson is to remind ourselves that we can fervently work toward change but to engage in violence, whether in practice, in language, or in imagery, is to do all of us harm. We must retain our humanity by maintaining our civility.
Lesson 3: Words matter. The “I have a dream” speech is a rhetorical tour de force. The power of his words is breathtaking, even almost 50 years later. His skills as an orator inspired the crowd then, and have continued to inspire every year since then. Our lesson is to understand the power of our words, whether meant to inspire or meant to incite. We need to understand that when we aspire to greatness, we inspire our positive impacts on society. We give hope to finding a path forward. But when we use code words to incite “our base,” we demean each other and diminish our message.
I believe there are many more lessons we can take home from Dr. King’s speech, as well as from the example he set in his life and the determination he showed to work against the prevailing climate of prejudice and discrimination. We can all learn much from watching this particular speech, from understanding the era in which he lived, and understanding how the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Civil War, and our accurate history – both the aspirations and the imperfections – have helped us become the most wonderous country on this planet. Let’s learn those lessons so we can keep it that way as we grow into the future.
© David K, January 2011