Nearly six decades ago, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered a speech that helped define the Civil Rights movement and galvanize the American experience for millions of people.
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of Aug. 28, 1963, stands among the great oratories in American history. And while his repetition of his desires for this nation is ingrained in our lore, it is not the entire substance of the speech.
Nor is it the entire substance of King’s remarkable efforts to promote justice in the United States. It is for a lifetime of achievement, courage and vision that King is honored today with a national holiday.
In reflecting upon King’s legacy it is, indeed, important to recall the oft-repeated crescendo of his speech to some 250,000 observers during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: “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. I have a dream today.”
But the rest of the speech also bears remembering. There, King spoke of economic justice.
“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said. “When the architects of our great 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 inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“It is obvious today 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 its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ”
And yet, this indictment was buoyed by hope of a better future and by our nation’s great capacity for morality.
“We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt,” King added. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.”
The following year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. A year later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. King’s ability to synthesize the Black experience while also appealing to the conscience of white America was essential to those historic acts.
But distilling the impact of King’s life into a single 16-minute speech is to do him a disservice. There were countless speeches and countless marches and a status as the moral voice of the nation’s downtrodden.
The lesson: Justice requires hard work and diligence. It is not so much a destination as it is a journey, an endless quest. It is appropriate, therefore, that King’s birthday is commemorated in conjunction with the Martin Luther King Day of Service, with Americans of all backgrounds encouraged to engage with their communities.
In Vancouver, the city is coordinating the removal of invasive plants from Marine Park (registration is closed). And we implore other local governments to embrace the service aspect of MLK Day through formal events that bring communities together. It would be an effective way to honor a man whose legacy resonates some six decades after he inspired a nation.