I wish I could say that I remember the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech that took place fifty years ago, but in all honesty, I can’t. After all, on August 28, 1963, I was a white kid growing up in an upper middle class suburb of a middle-sized town in the Midwest. I was about to enter Grade 6, and in a couple of weeks I would be 11. I wasn’t really concerned too deeply with the political scene that summer. And even if I was tuned in, I’m pretty sure that on that day we didn’t have the TV or radio on, and if we did, we were probably listening to the Detroit Tigers play the Los Angeles Angels at Tiger Stadium. (The Tigers won, 2-1).
August 28, 1963, was also my dad’s 37th birthday, so I’m pretty sure we had a family dinner for him on the back porch: spare ribs or steak from the barbecue, asparagus with my mom’s hollandaise, baked potatoes, and angel food cake — Dad’s favorite — for dessert. We’d open his presents, and then settle in on the porch for a quiet evening. We didn’t even have a TV on the porch then.
It had already been a busy summer. I narrowly missed going to summer school, but got tutored in math (it didn’t help much). I’d seen my first partial eclipse of the sun on July 20 while we were up in Michigan, and then we’d all been saddened by the tragedy that struck President Kennedy’s family when son Patrick died earlier that August after surviving only two days. So when the Toledo Times and The Blade started running stories about the upcoming march in Washington, I don’t think I paid any attention to them.
But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of the struggle for civil rights. The news in the early 1960’s was full of stories about the Freedom Riders in Alabama and Mississippi, and we had seen the grainy news footage on TV of the police with water hoses and lunging dogs. Toledo has a large black population, and we got a lot of our news out of Detroit, where many of the organizers of the marches and demonstrations came from. So I knew. I heard. I saw. And to this day, the mere mention of Alabama and Mississippi conjures up memories of those times and gives me a sense of foreboding. And if that’s what it could do to a ten-year-old white kid in Ohio, imagine what it did — and still does — for the people who lived through it.
Like many people my age and from my kind of background, “I Have A Dream” did not arrive on our consciousness until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been passed, and it did not become powerful until after April 4, 1968, when Dr. King was murdered in Memphis. And even then, the riots in 1967 and 1968, the struggle against forced busing in such liberal bastions as Boston and Chicago and Detroit, the constant struggle by so many people to win a place at the table made what Dr. King said in the speech all the more poignant because now, fifty years later, a lot of what he dreamed of has been achieved but so much is still dreamed of.
Fifty years later, we have a black president, but racism is still alive and well. Fifty years later, we have laws on the books and Constitutional protections for all races to vote, but new restrictions are being crafted every day. Fifty years later, we have outlawed bans against interracial marriage, but marriage equality for all is still far away. Fifty years later, public school desegregation has been achieved, but the schools in the poorer neighborhoods still get less money and struggle with crumbling buildings, and programs and grants to alleviate the problem are the first on the chopping block. And fifty years later, we are still judging people by the color of their skin, not the content of their character. Ask the family of Trayvon Martin if you have any lingering doubts about that.
And yet what Martin Luther King, Jr. said on those marble steps on that bright August afternoon fifty years ago when he came to demand payment on the promissory note set forth in the Declaration of Independence were not words of impatience, militancy or uncompromising threats. He often said that what he and everyone else gathered there and across the country wanted could not be achieved in a year, in five years, in a decade, or even fifty years. It took us nearly 400 years to get to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and it will take a few more. He knew that, and we know it. But that does not mean we give up or give ground.
I may not have heard his words that day when I was ten years old. But I have heard them often in the years since and I have taken them to heart for myself and for others. If you don’t remember Dr. King when he was alive, you are certainly aware of his life and his legacy, and I don’t just mean because you might get the day off on his birthday in January. Regardless of your race, your religion, your sex, or your occupation, Dr. King’s work has changed it, either during your lifetime or setting the stage for it now. And no matter what history may record of his life as a man, a preacher, a father, a husband, or a scholar, it is hard to imagine what this country — and indeed the world — would be like had he not been with us for all too brief a time.