Given events of the past two weeks, it is worthwhile to recall that yesterday was the 54th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
Voluble activists, social media trolls and some in the national media may suggest our current epoch is America’s darkest hour in race relations. But the era in which King delivered his spellbinding remarks was far more fraught with hatred, bigotry, “institutional” racism and violence.
King spoke that hot August day to an estimated 200,000 people gathered for “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” His remarks came 11 months before the signing of the Civil Rights Act, five months before the ratification of the 24th Amendment that abolished poll taxes in 11 Southern states and two years before the signing of the Voting Rights Act.
Just two months earlier, Alabama Gov. George Wallace attempted to block two black students from desegregating the University of Alabama. Within two weeks of King’s speech, Wallace sought to prevent four black children from entering whites-only public schools in Huntsville. Less than three weeks after King’s speech, the Ku Klux Klan bombed Birmingham’s famous 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young black girls attending Sunday school. King spoke 19 months before the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
Over in Mississippi, just two months before the march, the Klan assassinated Medgar Evers, a prominent NAACP leader in the state. Some 10 months after King’s address, the Klan murdered three civil rights activists, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.
Around the time King led that march, violent, and sometimes deadly, interracial clashes between whites and blacks were far too common — and were not exclusive to the South. Such incidents occurred in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City and Maryland. The Klan, whose membership then was estimated to be as high as 50,000, compared to 3,000 today, waged a routine campaign of terror featuring bombings, assassinations and beatings. Soldiers were often deployed on American soil for peace-keeping duty. And blacks could still face government-sanctioned discrimination in housing, education, voting and employment.
Suffice to say, the climate now is nothing like it was then — despite the tragedy and hatred on display in Charlottesville.
That said, though, the Virginia melee and the resulting fallout, which continues to stoke tension and divisiveness, provides an appropriate backdrop to revive King’s message of five decades ago.
That day, King said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: that all men are created equal. …”
“This is our hope.”
America is no longer the country it was 50 years ago, or 100, or 200. The progress toward justice and harmony is immeasurable. And we shouldn’t be swayed from believing that, or steered away from King’s dream, by those who stir the embers of discord in trying to rekindle that long, lost past. Let’s stop. Now.