The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech fifty years ago today was a turning point for all Americans not just black Americans. It was a partly improvised 17-minute oration that cited history, scripture, politics and economics as it challenged the United States government to live up to its founding principal of freedom for all citizens while at the same time challenging demonstrators to remain calm but persistent.
Many white people of mid-boomer age who grew up in the South in the 1960s might think the speech and the 50th anniversary activities are not for them. In my opinion, that view is like saying that the freedoms our country is built on are only for white people. And sadly, that was true for a large chunk of our history. Our Declaration of Independence declares that we are all created equal but for much of our history only white men could vote.
I grew up in a racist environment. Many family members were racist and some still are. I won’t repeat some of the ‘beliefs’ we were raised with regarding blacks and other races. I will say that I always struggled with the idea that other races were anything less than equal but I didn’t challenge those things very much as a kid because I didn’t know anything else. My neighborhood was entirely white. I am certain that the first black person to ever enter my family’s home was one of the people we hired to help my Dad with his Parkinson’s-related issues in the 1990s.
My parents slowly changed some of their attitudes towards black people after spending time in close proximity with them. It is amazing what you can learn about someone by having a conversation. My mother and one of the older ‘sitters’ talked about children and grandchildren. During ten years of sitters, only one of them was male, a black male, and my Dad had conversations with him about some guy things including carpentry.
The 1963 speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. painted a picture where all races and creeds would live the American Dream together. Are we there yet? Yes in some ways, no in others. Every citizen has equal voting rights. Every citizen has the right to jobs regardless of color … in theory. In practice there is probably ongoing racism, sometimes unintended, sometimes blatant but secretive. Multi-racial couples and families are still an oddity in some parts of the country, especially in rural areas like the one I recently moved away from.
A sad aspect of the celebrations this week is that so many talk shows and Facebook posts have politicized Dr. King and the whole civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.
A positive aspect of the celebrations is that a white former President from Arkansas and the current black President from Chicago could share the stage and each give a speech standing on the very spot where Dr. King stood fifty years ago. Today was for all of us.
I can't even imaging what this moment felt like to the Obamas today ...