Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.
delivered at the Royal Palm Beach Cultural Center on Monday, January 21, 2008 during the 6th Annual Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Celebration, sponsored by the Caribbean American for Community Involvement in Florida, Inc. and the Village of Royal Palm Beach, Florida
Spirit is the powerhouse of imagination. It is the driving force that motivates us to communicate experiences and ideas to future generations. Imagination fuels dreams and dreams are the gateway to the future. No one understood the power of a dream more than Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King has become an icon whose name appears on buildings, schools, streets and highways all across our country … throughout the world for that matter. Like most icons, he wasn’t a superhero; he was a simple man with a message…a simple young black Southern Baptist minister who rose to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Ten years ago, Jack E. White of Time Magazine, wrote, “It is a testament to the greatness of Martin Luther King Jr. that nearly every major city in the U.S. has a street or school named after him. It is a measure of how sorely his achievements are misunderstood that most of them are located in black neighborhoods.”
In the book of Genesis, the story is told about Joseph, son of Jacob, who had a dream. Word spread of his dreaming, to which his critics said, “Here comes the dreamer. Let us slay him and see what becomes of his dream.” It seems history repeats itself, because the story re-emerged in the 20th century. Martin Luther King was slain because he, too, had a dream. They killed the man, but they failed to kill his dream.
I’m here today to pay tribute to the man who was catapulted into the national spotlight during one of the most tumultuous periods in our nation’s history. To understand the strength and courage of this young black preacher with a mission, you have to be aware of the climate of the times in which he lived, especially in the South. Keep in mind that this was the mid-20th century in America – the land of the free where “all men are created equal.”
There were separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks and there were “colored” balconies in movie theaters with separate stairways. Even highly educated blacks were routinely denied the right to vote or serve on juries. If you were black you could not eat at lunch counters. If you were black you could not register in motels or use whites-only restrooms. If you were black you could not buy or rent a home wherever you chose. If you were black you had to sit in the back of the bus. And quite often in the South, if you were black you were even compelled to get off the sidewalk and stand in the street if a Caucasian walked by.
I grew up in the military. My father was a career soldier, so I spent most of my childhood overseas and attended military schools. I grew up in a melting pot of cultures and races. Oh, we recognized that we had different skin colors, but it was no different than one kid was a blond and another was a redhead. I was covered with freckles. Believe me, I took a lot of ribbing because of that. But for the most part none of this was serious. We didn’t see these characteristics as differences; they were distinctions. We didn’t judge each other because of them. We simply accepted that that was the way it was and did what kids do naturally … we played together.
I grew to learn that my experience as a child was not the norm. Racial discrimination was something I’ve always had a difficult time understanding. That’s why when Martin Luther King emerged on the scene in the 1960s, I saw a prophet with a message that made sense.
His integrity brought him into the national spotlight; his courage brought freedom and justice to an entire race of people; and his commitment to non-violence, peace and equality raised the consciousness of a nation that spread throughout the world. While most radicals were advocating revolution, King was preaching change through non-violent evolution.
Let’s go back half a century to how it all began.
On December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, forty-two-year-old seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus. Her arrest brought about a national outcry. Four days later community leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, elected a local young, black Southern Baptist preacher as their president, and organized a bus boycott that lasted more than a year. The effort caught the interest of the national media. The media attention, combined with the fact that mostly blacks rode the buses, soon caused the boycott to cripple Montgomery’s public transportation system. The boycott, therefore, was highly successful and a year and a half later the United States Supreme Court declared Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional and Montgomery buses were desegregated. Shortly after that, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded. Once again, this young black minister named Martin Luther King Jr. was chosen to lead them in their fight against segregation and to establish equal rights for all citizens regardless of race.
While some groups, such as the Black Panthers, advocated an uprising for revolution and rioting, King continued to promote a more peaceful approach toward change. He encouraged his followers to use non-violent tactics to further their cause through peaceful demonstrations, protests, marches and sit-ins. Although he was always at the forefront of what by then became known as the Civil Rights Movement, he didn’t reach national prominence until the first large-scale integrated protest march on Washington was organized on August 28, 1963. That was the day that Martin Luther King Jr. stood before television cameras on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to address a gathered crowd of several thousand and proclaimed to the entire world that he had a dream.
The address he delivered on that day is deemed by most historians to be the greatest and most powerful speech of the 20th century and considered to be second only to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address throughout all of U.S. history.
It is with great humility that I am honored to be asked to deliver that speech for you now in its entirety.
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men - yes, black men as well as white men - would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice. We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning. Those who hoped that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. 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 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. 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. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “for whites only.” We cannot 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.
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, 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. I say to you today my friends - so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification - one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father's died, land of the Pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi - from every mountainside.
Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring - when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children - black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics - will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”