It has been fifty years since the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s soaring and simultaneously sobering “I Have A Dream” speech. Fifty years! I was only 13 years old and just entering the last eighth grade class at Booker T. Washington High, here in Atlanta. That speech, tragically framed with the murders of the four young girls in the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing the next month and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy two months after that, permeated the next five years of our high school lives. Every graduation and yearbook reflected on that speech during the next five years of those troubling and changing times. One month before our graduation, Dr. King was murdered. Our graduation theme became “The Impossible Dream”.
“I Have A Dream” has been an integral part of my life and who I am, but there are two other King Speeches that have impacted me and my sense of being just as much. One year exactly before his assassination, Dr. King delivered one of the most riveting, thoughtful, and global perspectives at Riverside Baptist Church in New York, entitled ‘Beyond Vietnam’. If you haven’t heard or read this speech lately or ever, it is a must! It was this speech, explaining in precise factual, philosophical, and scriptural detail why he was against the war in Vietnam and American aggression, that illuminated and actualized a revolutionary worldview for me and so many others. Dr. King said, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”
He insisted that America needed to have a true revolution of values, to shift us from a thing-oriented society to a people-oriented society, to make us uncomfortable with the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth, to enable us to give up the privileges and pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas exploitation, to ward off the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism, and to “call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation”. If you wonder what Dr. King would be saying in 2013, re-read that speech!
The third of the three speeches that shaped and guided my life and energies was his last. A few hours before his assassination in Memphis before a packed church of sanitation workers and brave souls, Dr. King spoke of the otherside. He said he had been blessed by God to go upon the mountain and see the Promised Land. That speech expanded my world and my reality beyond what I could touch, taste, smell, see, or hear. That speech opened the door for me to the spiritual realities of our existence and the inherent interconnectedness of this world with the next. It liberated me from the fear of death and the myths of purposelessness and meaninglessness. It restored and expanded my soul.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was indeed a Dreamer, but he should never be regarded as a Sleeper. He was awake to G-d, to justice, to decency, to truth, and to humanity. May his words stay alive within us and may his legacy obligate our Nation.
Submitted by Imam Plemon T. El-Amin