Monday, January 21, 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Speech Still Resonates

Martin Luther KingToday is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I was too young to appreciate the significance of this man or his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, but voices from the past still echo the reality of that time.

I am reminded of my own dear father who had had a black maid growing up in Oklahoma. His racial slurs were common occurrences in my home, but no less common in the homes of my friends. I attended a large high school in the Pacific Northwest that was almost an even split: half white, half black. Interracial dating  was an adamant NO, and anyone who dared to cross those boundaries paid the consequences. Rumors flew through the school halls one day when a girl my friends and I knew was suddenly whisked off to a private school. We all knew that she was dating a handsome black football player. I myself was flirting with one in particular.

But to be fair, interracial dating was a no-no on both sides of the racial track. Fights between whites and blacks were common in school parking lots and around town, including a "rumble" in 1966 between our high school and another school. It made the papers, and as Corresponding Secretary of our school's student council, I was assigned  the task of writing a letter to the offending school, explaining our outrage. The task proved impossible. The letter flopped and was quickly rewritten by another student in council. Embarrassed, I was told my letter wasn't strong enough.

Truth be told, the world around me was changing so rapidly, it was all one big blur. President Kennedy's assassination in 1963 three years prior was still big news. He was gunned down just three months after King's famous speech in August 1963. Then there was the Vietnam War protest and the Civil Rights Movement erupting across the nation. As our soldiers fought for freedom in Southeast Asia, blacks in the south were holding sit-ins and carrying signs, protesting segregation and fighting for their own freedom. Violence broke out against them and was shown on national TV. What did it all mean? Everyone appeared to understand the issues but me it seemed. I felt as if I was the only one standing on the corner waiting for the bus to arrive.

But we were all grappling with our own realities then. A neighborhood friend's brother, Allan, died in Vietnam. Wake-up call. In college, I campaigned for Robert Kennedy and gathered with him and others in Portland in May 1968. One month later he was assassinated in California. Wake-up call. It was only months before in April that King, too, had been assassinated. Wake-up call. When I later married, and found myself coping with racial discrimination in Mississippi and Georgia, wrestling with the unfairness of blatant prejudice on the job and housing segregation, reality slapped me in the face once again.  

Rereading King's speech, I can see that his message of freedom and brotherhood is as vital today as it was then. There are discords of disunity in the U.S. that continue to exist, but we have made progress as a nation and a people. King would be proud of just how far we have come. (Today is also President Obama's second inaugural address). But would he not also say there are battles yet to be won--not just in the struggle for racial equality, and urge us to not be afraid to be ourselves, to stand up for our beliefs? Could it be that our dream for a better way or life might just be the solution for someone else, or even the nation . . . or the world? Yes, there are risks to be had, we might say. Assassins claimed the lives of three powerful leaders who spoke their minds and inspired many in the 1960s, and there were others. But dare we take this freedom of speech lightly? I think not.

Today countless school children across the U.S. will recite Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech in his memory, and rightly so!

Copyright 2013 © Sharon Himsl

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