Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. He was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. He died on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Had he lived, he would have been 80 years old on January 15th. In 1964 he won the Nobel Peace Prize and was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year.
Dr. King is remembered for many different things. On August 28, 1963 he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. If you have never heard or seen the entire speech, you should take 20 minutes and do so. It is an inspirational speech, but it also describes a divided America from 40 years ago that didn’t come close to treating African-Americans as real citizens. I am glad that I don’t live in 1963 America anymore. I was 10 years old at the time and didn’t really grasp what was going on, but I’m glad that we have made progress.
I don’t understand how we as a people could have allowed the discrimination and intolerance against African-Americans to go on as long as it did. We fought the Civil War where hundreds of thousands died, to stop the spread of slavery to more states, and then did virtually nothing to actually “free” African-Americans. The Emancipation Proclamation may have freed some slaves on paper, but in reality, did not. African-Americans have been discriminated against in every way possible for more than another 100 years.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially ended slavery on December 6, 1865.
Dr. King points out in his speech, speaking about the Emancipation Proclamation, “But one hundred years 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. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.”
That Jim Crow and segregation were allowed to exist at all, much less for as long as they did, is a terrible, painful memory for America. In 2009 America we have made progress towards equality. We have come a long way since 1963. But we are not there yet. As long as there are ignorant little men, we are not there yet.
In his “I See The Promised Land Speech” that he gave in Memphis, Tennessee the night before he died, he tells this story:
“You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said yes.
And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you drown in your own blood–that’s the end of you.
It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states, and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what the letter said.
But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the Whites Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
He ended the speech by saying, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Some people are saying that when Barack Obama takes the oath of office tomorrow, Dr. King’s dream will be achieved. I don’t think so. I think we are still far from it. America still has too many citizens suffering in poverty and despair, without any hope for the future. Too many of our children live with violence and the fear of violence on a daily basis. Discrimination still exists. We are not there yet.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “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.”
When Barack Obama takes the oath of office tomorrow and becomes the 44th President of the United States, it will be because America is a better place now than it was in 1968.
Dr. King was a courageous man. He was as brave as any soldier on a battlefield. He gave his life to free this nation from shameful behavior that divided it.
This country is a better place because of him, the people who marched with him, and the people that supported him.