One man stood at the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago on this date, 100 years after Abraham Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation, to proclaim his dream that, one day, his black children would walk together with white children in a world not segregated and defined by race.Today another man, who personified a glorious triumph of that dream when in 2009 he became the nations first black president, will speak before that monument to the Great Emancipator.
President Barack Obama will rise to the occasion. President Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton, two sons of the South, will stand with him. Their states of Georgia and Arkansas were among those that for generations bedeviled Kings ancestors and the other children and great-grandchildren of slavery. Yet both became leaders in their way for the cause of civil rights. Both picked up the torch that fell on a horrible night in Memphis in 1968 when King died from an assassins bullet.
King was not the sole organizer of the March on Washington that took 250,000 people to the nations capital in August of 1963, any more than he was the only leader of the civil rights movement. But with his I Have a Dream speech, the preacher from Atlanta, still in his youth, became the everlasting symbol of the movement, his image now standing in granite among monuments on the National Mall.
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, King said.
Those in their late 50s and older will remember the black-and-white images flickering on their television sets that day. Some of the icons of the time are still with us, but others, many others, are gone. A 50th anniversary is like that, bringing celebration and mourning.
King would find comfort in many things that have happened in his America since that day.
Incredible as it may seem, among the goals set out by King and others who organized the march were a minimum wage above an hourly rate of $2, an end to the whites only signs of the Jim Crow South and a civil rights law. These were not things about which supporters were optimistic, not when people such as Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina were labeling the civil rights marchers as communists and the director of the FBI was not hiding his contempt for King.
The prejudices against the marchers, the blatant, racist attitudes of many in the South and in the North as well, and the push for a civil rights law things that were on the public conscience long ago might seem almost antiquated now. But it wasnt so long ago.
The civil rights movement that on this day perhaps reached the height of its intensity and its glory is recent history, still relatively fresh in the minds of millions of Americans.
Yes, integration has changed the schools, and a byproduct of public education seems to be more tolerance in the younger generations for people of different colors and backgrounds and sexual orientations. Affirmative action has provided some guarantee of equal opportunity in the workplace. Higher education is more accessible to all.
And, yes, a black man is president.
But the nation must continue to dream of ever more tolerance and opportunity. And it must always, always, guard against retreat, sadly exemplified of late by voting reforms instituted by North Carolina lawmakers and those in other states. These reforms make our most sacred right more difficult to exercise for those of color or age or youth with curbs on early voting and straight ticket voting and with photo identification rules that call to mind the poll taxes of Jim Crow.
The dream is much closer to reality. But it is not guaranteed.