Issues of social justice are of great importance to me. Considering the recent events of Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, Chapel Hill and Paris, I am reminded of how far we have come and how much further we have to go. As I reflect, I find myself again listening to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
I recall the first time I heard excerpts from this historic speech. I was twelve years old. It was 1972. I was at my friend’s house, listening to a promotional recording compiled of old audio clips from the first 50 years of Atlanta’s WSB radio station broadcasts. We laughed at the antiquated sounding announcer from the station’s first broadcast. There were clips of early country music and other historic local audio clips that sounded hilarious to our snarky adolescent ears.
Toward the end of the record, I heard those now familiar words: “I have a dream.” His voice. The timbre and tremolo. The peaks and valleys. It was something I had never before heard! As our laughter faded and the joking ceased, I was drawn in. Listening to that promotional recording that day, I was mesmerized, as if King were speaking to me from the grave. And I hung on his every word.
Only four years since his assassination, King’s death was still fresh in my memory, followed a year later with my father’s suicide.
What was socially familiar became strangely familial. Uneducated and unable to read or write until later in life, my grandfather was always quick to prejudge and characterize those of darker skin hues as somehow less than human…as ignorant and undeserving. Growing up, I consistently heard the familiar strains of racial bigotry. To put another person down because of race was a way for my grandfather to elevate himself beyond his own socio-economic depravity to a position of false honor.
His racial animosities were inherently passed down to my father and their racial attitudes affected me as a child. In a twisted way, for me to embrace my father’s racial bigotry was a means to keep him alive. Intrinsically, I knew this was wrong.
Hearing King’s speech on that recording was a turning point for me. His vision, his dream offered a more excellent way. That change was slow for me. It meant rejecting long-held beliefs and prejudices. It meant viewing the world differently.
As timeless as it is, King’s speech evokes for me a spirit of melancholy. As a society, we have come a long way, and yet we’re still not there—we have still so far to go.
One day. One day—“black children and white children, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Gentiles (and Muslims) will be able to join hands and sing the old Negro spiritual, ‘free and last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’” #blacklivesmatter… #muslimlivesmatter… #jesuischarlie… #alllivesmatter
God, I pray so. May it be so.