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Fifty-seven years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream of equality, justice and unity with a quarter million people in the nation’s capital.
Delivered from the Lincoln Memorial steps during the March on Washington held Aug. 28, 1963, King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech galvanized the civil rights movement and inspired millions of Americans to work toward racial reconciliation.
Progress didn’t come immediately. “March Fails to Spur Congress Into Action,” blared a front-page headline in The Wilson Daily Times’ Aug. 29 edition. A dispatch from the Associated Press noted that a U.S. House committee postponed a hearing for President John F. Kennedy’s bill on voting rights and desegregation.
A Senate filibuster stalled the legislation later known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson would sign it into law 10 months after the March on Washington and eight months after Kennedy’s assassination.
Nearly a year before the historic march, eastern North Carolina heard King describe his vision. In November 1962, the civil rights leader delivered a variation of the “Dream” speech at Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount. N.C. State University has a digitally restored recording of that address in its archives.
The famous refrain isn’t mentioned in a brief Associated Press story that appeared at the bottom of the Daily Times’ front page: “King Addresses Crowd of 1,800 in Rocky Mount.”
“Old Man Segregation is on his deathbed,” King remarked in the story. “The only thing now is how costly the South will make his funeral.”
In a time of racial reckoning and civil unrest following police violence against unarmed Black men, all Americans would do well to measure our nation against King’s dream. Our stalled progress should convict us. The unfulfilled vision — poet Langston Hughes might call it “a dream deferred” — should challenge us.
“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” King said in the historic address.
In a second reference to police brutality, King calls Black civil rights demonstrators “the veterans of creative suffering” and urges them to press on in the face of often fierce persecution.
Making Martin Luther King’s dream a reality will require an overhaul of the American criminal justice system. The police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a nationwide protest movement.
Activists thought their message was being heard. Then on Sunday, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Blake survived the shooting, which Gov. Tony Evers has roundly condemned. State lawmakers are holding an emergency session to consider police reform bills.
Righteous anger can be an all-consuming fire, and some protests over police abuse have led demonstrators to declare the United States a racist country and topple slave owners’ statues — not just the Confederate generals who fought to maintain the institution of slavery, but Founding Fathers including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Laws and policies that are inherently racist or produce racist outcomes must be repealed. As for America’s founders, they are products of their time who, while imperfect, built the framework that’s been used to dismantle slavery, segregation and institutional racism.
Like Frederick Douglass, King understood that racial injustice persisted in spite of America’s founding principles, not because of them.
“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,” King said. “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.’”
The Constitution that’s helped make the United States the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth is a heritage that African Americans share. Its guarantees of liberty stand in stark contrast to police violence.
Likewise, King’s dream for his children — that they’ll be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character — must be a common vision for all American families.
“I have a dream that one day, this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’” King said.
That’s a dream every American can believe in. We all must work to make it come true.