Updated: Jan 17
THE SPEECH. This year will mark the 60th anniversary of what might be the most famous speech ever given by an American. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. painted a picture that remains fixed in our national consciousness. It was a dream. But is the picture we hold onto from that address the image that King most wanted to illustrate? Many perhaps recall these evocative lines,
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood ... I have a dream that one day in Alabama ... little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
This dream was an image of reconciliation, a coming together across the lines of race which in 1963 were often fixed barriers that might shock us today. And yet in truth our separation in society along the lines of race remains, if perhaps but more subtly. And so many of us continue to long for reconciliation. But King's dream, as offered from those marble steps 60 years ago, was grounded first and foremost in a call for justice. The image he put forward was that of a bounced check.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclaimation ... But one hundred years later ... the life of the colored American is still sadly crippled by the manacle of segregation and the chains of discrimination ... In a sense we have come to our Nation's Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir ... It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.
It was upon such a foundation of justice that King then imagined the scenes of reconciliation that fired people's imagination -- then, and now. This MLK holiday, as we consider the giant legacy of that icon whose life was snuffed out at a mere 39 years of age, let's continue to dream. But let us fix our dreams on justice, the justice we still need today in the face of enduring inequities of household wealth, healthcare outcomes, treatment in our criminal justice system (among other arenas of life) that persist along the lines of race.
Then, and only then, may we truly hope to hear freedom ring and harvest the fruit of reconciliation that we crave across this great land.
-- Rev, Pat Jackson