One week from today will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., an epochal leader cut down in the prime of his life by the perpetration of a hate crime and act of political terror from which our nation has yet to fully recover. His death, at the age of 39, deprived us not only of our moral compass in the face of racial injustice, but of a profound source of wisdom and inspiration required to overcome it.
Dr. King was a stirring orator who made hundreds of speeches a year, each delivered with passion, poignancy, and conviction, each providing incisive, if often painful insights into our shortcomings and contradictions. He did not mince words. Consider the following excerpt from a speech titled, “A Time to Break the Silence,” delivered at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, near the peak of the war in Vietnam:
We are taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.
Dr. King’s most memorable speech was, undoubtedly, his I have a Dream address, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963. Time Magazine includes I have a Dream in its list of the ten greatest speeches of all time, placing Reverend King alongside Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Socrates. The speech, spanning just sixteen minutes, was made to an assemblage of 250,000 participants in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
I have watched the speech many times, and each viewing gives me goose bumps and brings tears to my eyes. I am at once uplifted by the beauty of its vision and shamed by the realization that, despite the progress we have made, racial equality remains a dream. Most of all, I mourn the absence of Dr. King’s commanding presence, his moral clarity, and his willingness to link arms with those of different faith orientations, races, and ethnicities, uniting people in pursuit of liberty and justice for all.
At the very outset of I have a Dream, Dr. King reminds the massive assemblage that 100 years have passed since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In the very next sentence, he observes that a century later, “…we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
Flash forward to the present. A half-century has now passed since Dr. King’s untimely death. Our public schools remain largely segregated, if not de jure, de facto. In fact, a 2016 study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that segregation in U.S. public schools is growing. More than fifty years after the enactment of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the so-called racial “achievement gap” remains pronounced. Last week, a member of Congress hailing from California accused the current Secretary of Education of indifference to racial bias and discrimination. (Whether the charge has merit, or not, accusations of racial discrimination in our education system are ongoing and widespread.)
How would Dr. King have processed the knowledge that despite the election of the nation’s first African-American president a decade ago, systemic racial discrimination persists, the incidence of hate crimes is on the rise, and groups that were once able to find common cause in powerful coalitions have become increasingly fragmented and alienated?
I don’t know. I wish he were here to tell us.