Part 3 of a 3-part series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 “March on Washington” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
By William H. Barnwell
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his culture-changing “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., 50 years ago on Aug. 28. Most Americans revere that speech today; conservatives as well as liberals quote from it. But it wasn’t always that way. A generation ago my people in Charleston, S.C., and a great many people around the nation were convinced that Dr. King was a Communist. A “Commonist,” as they frequently called him.
August 1963 was a painful time for so many of us. We found ourselves in a quite different place from many friends and family members who had given us so much love. “How could you!” my dear mother said over and over again when she realized I had joined the edge of the civil rights movement.
It is important that we make a point of remembering Dr. King’s whole speech that day. A hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, King said, “We must face the tragic fact that the Negro is not free.” In 1963, too many Americans were in denial or did not care that so many African-Americans were not free. But as President John Adams said two centuries ago, “Facts are stubborn things.” We, the American people, are learning, but oh how slowly. Michelle Alexander points out in her recent book, “The New Jim Crow,” that there are more African-Americans in prison or under the control of the criminal justice system than there were slaves in 1850.
Later in the speech, King says, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” How important these words are for us now in our terribly divided nation. On controversial issues, King is saying, let us be driven by our logic, our understanding of history, our commitment, our faith or philosophy — but not by our hatred.
He then says, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” If you look closely at pictures of the more than 200,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial that late August day 50 years ago, you will see that most everyone is dressed up. It was like everyone was going to church — and in a way they were.
“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair,” King says. How easy it would have been for him and so many civil rights leaders to have given up. Progress seemed so slow, as it does on so many issues today when our people seek justice and well-being for all in our land.
Then Dr. King went on to talk about his dream. Essential to his dream was, of course, racial justice. But just as important was his dream of brotherly and sisterly love. He looked forward to the time when “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.” The courts, the legislatures, presidents and governors forced desegregation on the schools. But it was those same black and white children and teenagers who joined hands and made integration possible. Not perfectly for sure. But when the races did come together, our young people — now gray-heads — made that happen.
Dr. King ends his speech with the wonderful words from the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” On Dr. King’s tombstone in Atlanta are those words: “Free at last.” Think of how many of us — whites, blacks, Latinos and people of other ethnicities — have claimed a certain kind of freedom for ourselves, as we have moved forward toward racial justice, learning to hold hands with people who may be not like us. What a dream!
The Rev. William H. Barnwell is the interim priest in charge at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (a historically black church) and author of “Lead Me On, Let Me Stand: A Clergyman’s Story in White and Black,” published in September 2012.