By Dennis J. Freeman
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not bigger than his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. King’s irreplaceable presence looms no greater than the Montgomery Bus Boycott he participated in. The two historic Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama’s marches didn’t put the Baptist minister on some sort of royalty pedestal.
Being awarded with the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize didn’t give King an excuse to remove himself from the battlefield of the civil rights movement. This is why we celebrate the man. He was one of us.
And we must remember we embody the greatness of King when we set aside our racial prejudices and bigotry to see common ground with our fellow American.
Twenty-five years since the first time the nation observed King’s legacy in the form of a national holiday, America has moved steadily in the direction of fairness, equality and justice.
But America still has a long ways to go to repudiate the stench of the slavery of African Americans and centuries of the dehumanization of black folks through government action, Supreme Court rulings, bankrupt laws and roughshod citizenship. To this day, there is still no real accountability on the part of America for its sins against African Americans in this country.
However, the power of King’s anthem of love, racial healing and nonviolence has generated enough voltage in the last 25 years that America is at least headed in the right direction. America voted into the Oval Office the nation’s first black president when it elected President Barack Obama as its commander-in-chief in 2008.
We have seen America break its color ceiling in many fabrics of our lives in the last quarter century. African Americans in a leadership position, and being successful at it, is one barrier that is no longer applicable to America’s failures. The country has its first black president.
There are African Americans running companies. We’ve seen black men such as Tony Dingy, Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith and Jim Caldwell rebuke the theory that African Americans aren’t smart enough to lead as head coaches in the NFL. All four men have led their teams to the Super Bowl, sports biggest spotlight event.
Doors have opened in the political arena as well. The Supreme Court recently added its first Latino to the bench with the addition of Sonia Sotomayor. The U.S. has seen two African Americans serve as Secretary of State-Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Black kids are playing alongside white kids, Hispanic children and Asian Americans.
This is what King envisioned. He saw a better America than the days he was engulfed with its Jim Crow laws. Separate and unequal was the rule of law for most America during King’s reign as the country’s top civil rights leader.
The 1950s and 60s, eras in which the civil rights movement was at its peak, were the days of African Americans being sprayed relentlessly with firemen hoses, police dogs ripping their skin with vicious attacks, unaccounted murders, bombs and existing as second-class citizens.
The right to vote was nothing more than a foreign concept to many African Americans at that time, especially down in the South where terror reigned in the form of a white sheet, lynching’s and cross burnings. King spoke for the masses but he was also a part of them. He was spat on. He went to jail. He marched. He protested. He did the sit-in thing.
He called into question the consciousness of America as he stood toe-to-toe with oppressors of African Americans. This was not an easy time for America and its fractious race relations. Any form of stand-up measure or resistance by African Americans to segregation and discrimination usually resulted in beatings, death threats and scare and intimidation tactics.
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which resulted in the deaths of four little black girls in 1963, is a prime example of the terror that besieged African Americans during that time. King, the civil rights movement and the country were rocked by the incident.
Still, King and the many followers in the movement would remain relentless in their quest to see a better America. He recruited whites to join in the movement as he hoped to see the country as one, not a division.
King’s call to greatness as he fought for the rights of African Americans was that he challenged America to unite as one people. His “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall ushered in that call as he declared, “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.”
Not even an assassin’s bullet could stop King’s dream for a better America come to fruition.