Today is much more than the close of a three-day weekend.
Sadly, for many people Martin Luther King Jr. Day is little more than a paid vacation day or a day out of the classroom. That’s a disservice to the memory of the man for whom today’s holiday was created.
Today should be a time of reflection on the life, ideals and the vision of the nation’s most famous civil rights leader.
Most school children know King for his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital. King stood before 250,000 civil rights supporters and challenged America to reject hatred and embrace equality. That challenge helped change the face of America.
Today we must rededicate ourselves to King’s vision and there is no better way to begin that task than to reflect on his dream in his own words:
“In a sense,” King said that summer day, “we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“It is obvious today,” King said, “that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
King pleaded with his fellow travelers to follow the right path in their quest for justice.
“There is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: in the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds,” King said. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
How appropriate that message is today in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. How many of our politicians, commentators and ordinary citizens, today, drink “from the cup of bitterness and hatred?”
King spelled out his vision for America, that August day. “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
King concluded with these words, “... When we allow freedom (to) ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
While this nation has come a long way since that day when King stirred the nation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, truth be told, the United States has not totally shed its racist past. Sadly, there are still people who hold tight to prejudice and drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
It’s our obligation — our duty — to let our call for peace and justice outshine the messages of hate and deflect the assassin’s bullet. It is up to us to live Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and make it America’s reality.