Thursday, August 29, 2013

Reflections on 'I Have a Dream' +50

"With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." (inscribed on the MLK Memorial, pictured left)

It’s been fifty years since the Civil Rights Movement reached its critical turning point with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Pop culture, the media and people everywhere are reflecting on that historic August day in 1963 when hundreds of thousands of Americans rallied in what would become the largest human rights demonstration in U.S. history.

Dr. King fought for racial harmony and social and economic justice for millions of black Americans during a time of segregation and discrimination deeply rooted in racist attitudes within the spirit of “separate but equal” rhetoric. Looking back with the luxury of hindsight, these sentiments were an embarrassing period in American history, one that Dr. King fought to amend. As many other commentators before me have stated, we should always remember MLK’s calls for nonviolent change that advances all people, and how his leadership extended to millions with courage, poise and dignity.

But I think one of Dr. King’s most powerful lasting legacies of his life and of his dream is his call for reflection. He implored people to see that they themselves are the vehicles for the change they wish to see in the world. Although he was an outstanding orator, and that those skills certainly played a role in his persuasiveness and popularity, his real power was his ability to empower others – to steer society as a whole towards an enlightenment sorely lacking from the mainstream. He challenged the status quo , and put the plight of black people squarely in front of the nation’s conscience.

Fifty years after the “I Have a Dream Speech,” we would do well to identify and protest how modern racism in America has evolved in new, complex ways, because at its heart, racism and injustice reveal the worst in ourselves, if you have the courage to look. It is here that also we remember his call to reflect on our morals: what and who exactly do we value, and why? Are we being compassionate enough?

It's important to remember, though, that our ability to correct our moral compasses doesn't always depend on the content of our character. Remember, even though we now believe that Dr. King had a just and noble cause, at the time he was under close FBI surveillance and deemed a threat to the status quo. Radical change, even for the good, is oftentimes framed as subverting national security and harmony. Unfortunately, these sentiments continue to permeate societies all over the world. Political dissidents espousing Dr. King's dream of equality are routinely denied even their basic rights. Just as it was deemed outrageous by some for Dr. King to demand equal opportunity and unity, dozens of countries today deny individuals and entire peoples their basic human dignities using the same rationale. Our fight for equality and reversing hateful perceptions in the U.S. is not just our fight alone.

America has a long way to go in correcting the residual manifestations of the Jim Crow era. But at least we can look back at King's "I Have a Dream" speech and reinvigorate our tools to fight our modern injustices, both small-scale and global, and reflect on our own efforts in realizing Dr. King's dream.


  1. Nice post Zach, and I like how you zeroed in on the self-reflection and "we are the change we seek" parts of Dr. King's message