1963 on this day, a quarter million people came to Washington DC for the March for Jobs and Freedom. We now refer to it as the Civil Rights March, and it is true, it had a focus on Civil Rights for African Americans - perhaps 80% of those in attendance were Black.
Only one labor union had a significant presnece - the United Auto Workers.
And among the 20% who were white was a just graduated from high school 17 year old boy from Larchmont New York about to leave for his freshman year at Haverford.
I think of that day, 49 years ago, where I came to Washington because I saw inequity in our nation, because I saw discrimination against people because of the color of their skin.
I think of August 28 this year, a Republican convention that will nominate Mitt Romney, whose campaign is already using racial dog whistles against America's first Black president.
Perhaps I should be ashamed for my country - not that politicians use racial dog whistles, because there are always people who lack a moral base, who will do anythkng for political or economic success regardless of the impact upon others - and clearly Romney's business career demonstrates his lack of what I would consider a moral base, so I am not surprised by the tone of his campaign, of his outright lying on Medicare, on welfare reform, and so on.
I wonder if given the anniversary the keynote speech will attempt to appropriate the words of King the same way the Republicans who seek to destroy Medicare attempt to mislead the American people into thinking they will protect a program they seek to gut from the President who moved to extend its life by a decade.
Perhaps they should read King's entire speech from that day, the text of which you can read here He talked about the unfulfilled promissory note of all men being created. He used phrases like these:
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.
Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.But he also offered words like these:
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.Please keep reading.
Too often people only read the ending portion of King's speech, the "I have a dream" portion. Those words by themselves miss the power of what King was saying. In a time when one party advocates voter id laws to attempt to keep African-Americans from voting in hopes of stealing re-election from the first Black president, perhaps we can remember an earlier part of that speech:
We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.Without the vote for all there is no justice, and our legal system and political systems become as perverted as is an economic system where it is legal for the man who will tonight win the nomination of the Republican part to make millions upon millions by transferring jobs to other countries, bankrupting companies while enriching himself and his partners and investor, shift funds to other nations to avoid paying US taxes, and put out political ads that tv stations are required to run even as they contain patent falsehoods.
King told those of us in attendance, and those who listened on TV and radio
You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.Those words were directed to those who had suffered beatings, jailings, and yes - denial of the right to participate politically and loss of jobs for advocating for their rights.
He told them, particularly those from the segregated South,
Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.He then offered his dream.
I wonder what King would say looking at Tampa, or even looking at Charlotte when the Democrats gather. In the latter case he would note the greater diversity, the participation of those of color and also of women. That he might affirm, but I have no doubt he question the lack of participation of poor people, the opulence on display in both Southern convention cities, the influence of the corporations and the wealthy, and wonder how this is an illustration of the principal of all men being created equal that so motivated those who came to Washington 49 years ago today.
King and the others who came to Washington challenged the nation to live up to its promise. He argued
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.Today instead we hear dog whistles and lies and the fomenting of hatred in order that some already powerful and wealthy can gain control of all the mechanisms of the government of We the People of the United States in order to further enrich some at the expense of the rest of us. King argued for community, those in Tampa seek profits and personal enrichment and exemption from the civic responsibility of paying taxes to support the work that only the government can fairly do.
August 28 has been an important date on my calendar for 49 of my 66 years on this earth.
I was young when I came to Washington for the first time in my life, but I was already committed to the idea of equality, of overcoming discrimination and hopefully converting America away from prejudice.
I too had a dream. KIng dreamed that his children would be judged by the content of the ir character rather than by the color of their skin. The use of racial dog whistles to win political power is contrary to that dream.
I dreamed of a time when those who sought political office would do so on the basis of appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature, words from his 1st Inaugural, offered at a time when this nation was on the precipice of an internecine conflict that almost destroyed the promise of our nation's founding.
I no longer place the hopes of my dream on others. I can only attempt to live by it myself, to demonstrate its power to others.
It fueled my teaching.
It fuels my living.
I refuse to accept anything lesser, which is part of why I remain politically active.
There will be words spoken tonight whose purpose pales beyond that of 49 years ago.
As you listen to those words, and to those offered in the next few days, compare them to those offered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
As you look at how and why people gather, not merely in Tampa but also in Charlotte, remember the purpose of those gatherings and see how both pale in comparison to why a quarter million of us gathered in our nation's Capital in 1963.
Both will pale in comparison. One has already betrayed the dream King offered to inspire the nation.
I prefer to hold on to the complete inspiration of August 28, as I experienced it in 1963.
I will measure the political rhetoric against the moral challenge King and others placed before us, not merely in their words, but in how they lived and worked.
What about you?