Originally published in Duluth News Tribune
Aug. 28 marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which earned him a stature exclusive only to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. All three men faced enormous challenges, but their faith, courage and sacrifices helped shape modern America by advancing the notion of basic human equality and universal freedom.
Today, America faces even bigger challenges, and the road is still long. To tread the way, we must learn from the legacy of Jefferson, Lincoln and King together.
Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, which formally acknowledged that “all men” are created equal. Jefferson neither intended to nor explicitly excluded enslaved African-Americans in his generous definition of basic human equality for “all men.” In fact, he attempted to specifically include an anti-slavery clause in the founding document to avoid any such implication. However, the ruthless reality that slavery provided a cheap source of labor for growing plantation business in the South prevented ratification of any such measure on July 4, 1776.
During the next century, African-American slaves remained excluded from “all men.” They were treated as mere gasoline for the economic engine of the newly formed America until it backfired, resulting in the Civil War.
It was now Lincoln’s opportunity to abolish slavery. Although Lincoln’s landmark Emancipation Proclamation was a military strategy to win the war, it helped free a large number of slaves in the rebellious states. However, to seek a permanent end to slavery, Lincoln had to work hard to cope with staunch political resistance to win the necessary votes in Congress to pass the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. The constitutional guarantee of freedom and equality to “all men,” including African-Americans, infuriated former slave owners who showed unprecedented bigotry and hypocrisy toward freed slaves. Dodging the Constitution, they crafted Jim Crow laws at local and state levels, mandating “separate but equal” status for African-Americans at all public places.
This so-called legalized racism continued for almost an entire century until the Civil Rights Movement reached its peak when King, with all his moral authority, attempted to lead America back to the universal freedom and equality with his “I Have a Dream” speech.
King demanded equal employment opportunities for African-Americans, seeking an end to racial discrimination. He dreamed America not only enacted laws but respected them. King dreamed that America shift its focus from finding trivial human differences to searching for deeper inherent commonalities. King dreamed that no individual or group is to be ever excluded from “all men,” as defined in the Declaration of Independence.
King’s demands largely were met by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But 50 years later his dream remains unfulfilled as the scepter of inequality and discrimination continues to haunt us in new forms and shapes. King’s dream fails to realize when someone is pulled aside at the airport just because of an unusual name or dress code or when your coworker or neighbor shuns you because of your faith or sexual orientation. King’s dream seems to fizzle when the top 1 percent of Americans occupies 40 percent of the wealth and when a female worker earns 77 cents for every dollar her male counterpart makes for the same job. King’s dream certainly remains far from coming true when a young black teen wearing a hoodie, and with candy in his hand, poses such a threat he gets shot.
In fact, King’s dream will remain a dream as long as petty wishes and ulterior motives dictate our actions and control our decisions. No law or constitutional change can fulfill King’s dream unless we all — regardless of color, creed or ethnicity — examine ourselves to remove our hidden prejudices and baseless egos.
We the people can achieve King’s dream if we think as generously as Jefferson did, work as hard as Lincoln did, and walk the talk as King did. Otherwise, even God will not help; as the Quran says in its universal appeal, “Surely God changes not the condition of a nation until they change that what is in their hearts.”
The real tribute to King’s dream will be paid when compassion and justice rule our hearts and not just our tongues.