What would the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. think of the United States today? It is a common question among academics and others, particularly around his holiday in January. But today, we mark the 50th anniversary of his “I have a Dream” speech that has been etched into the minds of many Americans since it was delivered Aug. 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.
Since that day, year after year, nearly every one of us has seen the video, heard the tape and/or read the transcript. The delivery, of course, is remarkable but the words rang with a significant and painful truth about the past injustice in this nation and the promise of a better tomorrow.
And so, 50 years later, is this a better tomorrow? Yes, but as Dr. King would have eloquently pointed out, there is still work to be done. The 2008 election of Barack Obama as president is often seen as a watershed moment, and it was. Many anticipated that Obama would carry the legacy of Dr. King into the White House but the president is a politician, elected to serve a different purpose. Today, Obama is to deliver a speech marking the 50th anniversary and it will likely carry a worthwhile and important message for us all. It is presumptuous to say what Dr. King would say in this setting, but there might be a certain sense of always marching ahead.
The world is a significantly different place than it was 50 years ago during that sweltering summer of 1963. But there are still issues with which Dr. King would likely be compelled to address. The battle over marriage equality would likely resonate with him as would economic inequality. While marriage equality has seen its visible proponents, the issue of economic equality has not. The Occupy Wall Street movement, and its calls for assistance for the 99 percent, would have benefited immensely from a leader of Dr. King’s caliber who could put words to the malaise so many were feeling. The words of Dr. King would also direct the energy into a more positive way in which creative protest would not “degenerate into physical violence.” As far as race relations, it should be seen as a given that today is better than it was in 1963, but to say there are not pockets of problems would be ignorant. Addressing these issues in a positive and productive way, in a way that lifts the spirits of those feeling the impact of those issues, was Dr. King’s specialty. Others since him have fallen short but then others before him had fallen short as well.
His emphasis on peace and self-respect while shining an eloquent light on the positive aspects of our commonalities provided more movement than any other up to the point that the last word of his famous speech was spoken 50 years ago today. The American promise is paramount, and it has not always been delivered fairly to all. However, it took a man like Dr. King to say that no man can walk alone. We are all in this together, and today, 50 years after this dream was pronounced with such power, his words still should ring true in our collective hearts and minds. We have come far, but there is always work ahead of us. And we should always hold Dr. King’s spirit with us as we travel the road together.