It was 50 years ago today that the Pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta stood on the National Mall in Washington, DC to address one of the largest crowds ever gathered there. The U.S. Government was frightened enough to have elaborate contingency plans in case things got ugly: troops and hospitals were standing by for rioting, and cordons of law enforcement surrounded key government buildings. Jim Crow laws were still in force around the South, as well as job discrimination. It was a time of unrest that had already turned ugly in many places, and leaders were careful about the tone they set.
People converged on Washington from around the country by every means possible. Months of planning preceded the event by unions and civil rights groups,and last minute attempts were made to sabotage it. It was broadcast live as a news event, watched around the country and around the world.
Dr. King shared his Dream: a dream where the promise of America as a country of liberty and justice for all would finally come to pass. He went farther than simply pointing out the hypocrisy of his times, where legal discrimination against African Americans existed across the South, school desegregation was being fought tooth and nail, and society’s attitudes toward racial superiority had been unchanged for centuries. But he called his audience not to give into despair and violence. The Dream would be accomplished when everyone could be part of it, when the children of slaves and the children of slave owners could sit down together as equals, and people would be judged by the nature of the character rather than their race.
His speech had an immediate impact: it energized Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to push Civil Rights legislation in Congress, and began changing minds across the country. The people at the March on Washington kept their gathering peaceful, much to the suprise of white America. Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize the next year, and after his assassination he became an icon for peace and justice.
I was a seven year old second grader in a small Missouri town at the time, and it made little impact where I lived. I don’t remember the adults around me talking about it, and attitudes in my town didn’t begin to change until after I left. Although the Jim Crow laws are gone, societal attitudes have mellowed and a black President has been elected and re-elected, Jim Crow racism toward blacks and other minorities persists. My attitude and the attitudes of those around me have changed over the years, but I still see it in my world.
Dr. King wasn’t discouraged by America’s lack to cash the promissory note of liberty and justice for all in 1963, and we should not be discouraged because it hasn’t been cashed today. His Dream reverberates today because he articulated something that wasn’t just his dream for America or his people’s dream for justice: he revealed God’s dream all for us. Part of God’s dream for us is that we live together in peace and harmony, without prejudice or hate, seeing each other as people gifted by the Spirit and reverencing those gifts. God’s dream for us is not that we conquer our enemies in His Name or for our own selfish purpose, but convert them to His dream as we are converted so we can find new life together.
Our happiness, our peace, our fulfillment lies in how closely we’re able to live to God’s dream for us. It’s not something we have to have all at once to benefit from: I’m able to find God’s unique dream for me as I live more fully in that greater dream. Our Dream together empowers the dreams God has for you alone and me alone, and one cannot exist without the other. When we find our way together to God, we find our best selves and reach our full potential as individuals.
The unfulfilled part of that great Dream Dr. King spoke of is many things: a hope, a goal, a challenge, an action plan, a destiny. Knowing our destiny can lead us forward to maximize our gifts and talent as well as learn how to work together better. It can help us let go of everything that keeps us from that destiny in our own hearts, so we can help others let go of the obstacles they have.
The Dream is still alive, and is still part of us. The Dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is something that should still inspire and challenge us. The reality it still hasn’t come to pass yet shouldn’t make us discouraged, because it is God’s Dream for Us and God will see that it will happen. Our greatest challenge is to give ourselves to God’s Dream for Us.
Here is the text of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream”