February 6, 2012
The civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s is something fresh in my memory, and at times it’s hard to realize that not everyone shares those recollections. The fact is, I have to keep reminding myself, that for many young people what they know of those events comes mainly from history books. It’s one of those things, I guess, that prods us into realizing that time is indeed moving on.
These thoughts are inspired by the fact that February is Black History Month, a time for all Americans to reflect on what that means for the country. And while that history is multifaceted and richly diverse, few periods are as dramatic or as significant as the battles that took place during those decades.
Battles they were; make no mistake. The papers and the TV newscasts were full of them, day after day: the marches, the sit-ins, the freedom riders. That was part of it; there were also police dogs, tear gas, bombings and murders. The struggle took place mainly in the South, where the mood was defiant and, for a time, unyielding. For example, when James Meredith was finally enrolled as a graduate student in 1962, The New York Times gave it front-page, banner-headline treatment (“Negro at Mississippi U.”). The incident was all too typical of those days; the National Guard moved in, six federal marshals were shot and a campus riot took the lives of three men.
It’s against that backdrop of violence that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emerges as a towering figure--make that the towering figure--of an era. His “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963 before 200,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., is literally breathtaking. It stands as an antidote to all the ugliness and the unreasoning hatred of that terrible time. I came across it in Caroline Kennedy’s A Patriot’s Handbook, and reading the full text once again recalls all the passion, the hope--and yes, the “dream”--that its words contain.
Dr. King began his oration by stating his intention to “cash a check,” the promise that President Lincoln had given to black people 100 years earlier when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation,” he said. Then he spoke of “the urgency of now,” declaring that “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
He urged his listeners not to give in to “bitterness and hatred,” or to turn to violence. “Again and again,” he said, “we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” Then Dr. King reached the “I have a dream” section of the speech, channeling the prophetic voice of Isaiah as he proclaimed that “the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”
“Let freedom ring,” he finally pleaded, until all people are “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
It is a magnificent speech, one of the greatest in our history, helping to lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It deserves a full reading, as well as study and discussion, not only in Black History Month but throughout the year. It’s a reminder of where we’ve been, and how we got where we are today.
The history books, of course, tell part of the story. But the best part of it is the memories that remain. And the struggle, still far from fulfilled, goes on.
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