The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had to have known as he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech 60 years ago that the moment would change a nation.
After the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King stood before a sea of 250,000 people gathered Aug. 28, 1963, below the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He rose to the occasion, departing from his prepared text to deliver a passionate message, words that would become the most pivotal and signature moment of the civil rights movement.
Today, America is better and more diverse than King could have envisioned back in 1963, when just weeks after his speech, four little girls would die in the Sunday morning bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, a racially hostile and divided city known in the civil rights movement as “Bombingham.”
For dreams to endure, however, they must transcend moments of doubt and touch future generations whose accomplishments confirm the righteousness of the struggle. Had he lived to see 2023, King would have celebrated the symbolic breakthrough of a two-term president who shared his skin color, but he also would have shed bitter tears of anger and sadness over new legal scuffles over voting rights, crime in poor minority neighborhoods, seemingly intractable poverty, and the racial divisions among Americans over the death of George Floyd.
King also would have seen an America no longer defined almost exclusively in black and white but a nation of many hues, and one in which civil rights debates about opportunity and economic inclusiveness are filtered through a more complex lens.
King was right that day in 1963, when beneath the towering presence of the Great Emancipator, he said, “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”
Because many did exactly as he preached, their children and grandchildren are growing up in a nation that is closer to realizing King’s dream than the America he knew.
It is a trek that continues to this day. President Barack Obama’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s speech focused on civil rights and race relations. Dallas City Council member Dwaine Caraway called for a conversation about race. And a racial-justice think tank held its national conference on race in North Texas.
Just as important are the simple daily ways that many Americans embody the spirit of the “dream speech” as they quietly mentor, inspire, and seek to cash the check of opportunity.
Sixty years later, the dream faces hurdles, just as it did on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that historic day. In the spirit of King, it will overcome and endure.