Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when hundreds of thousands of people stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and protested racial inequality. It’s probably best known for being the site of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech. I’d like to take a minute to look at that speech.
The thing that strikes me the most is how completely relevant this speech still is, even fifty years later. It’s a testament to how universal the struggle for civil rights are. Many of the concepts in the speech can be applied to the LGBT movement, the feminist movement, the secular movement, and many others. Although much of the language in the speech is specific to the civil rights movement, the underlying principles will be familiar to anyone involved in social justice.
There are a few parts I would like to highlight. First, this paragraph:
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.
When I heard this, I had two reactions. First, that I’ve experienced the exact same response that King is talking about here. As I mentioned (completely coincidentally) in my post yesterday, many people think that same-sex marriage is the issue of the LGBT movement, and once we get that, we’ll be done, or, to use King’s words, we’ll be satisfied. King answers this beautifully, by declaring that we’ll never be satisfied until we truly achieve equality.
Secondly, I was amazed at how little we’ve come in the last fifty years. Literally every single issue King outlines in this paragraph is still an issue that plagues people of color. Granted, most of the discrimination is more subtle now, but it hasn’t gone away. POC’s are still overwhelmingly targets of police harassment and brutality. POC’s are still discriminated against by businesses around the country. POC’s make up an overwhelming amount of those living below the poverty line. While there are no more literal “Whites Only” signs, there are plenty of places that are dominated by white people, especially positions of power such as Congress, Fortune 500 companies, colleges and universities, and so on. And as evidenced by the last election, there are people in this country who wouldn’t hesitate to prevent POC’s from voting if only they had the chance.
Despite all the work that’s been done since King gave that speech, our society is still very racist. We have a lot of work to do.
The other part of King’s speech that stuck out to me was this:
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. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
These paragraphs really resonate with me. Far too often, I’ve seen people use the tactics of their oppressors to try and break free from oppression. I believe that is wrong. I believe it’s important to always take the high road, and not to bend to the pressure to take the easy way out. By stooping to the level of those who wish to deny us freedoms, we become no better than they are.
The second idea expressed here is that we mustn’t group all other people together. While every member of the oppressing group is part of a system that actively keeps us down, it’s important to remember that, individually, those people can fight alongside us and help us. We must not forget that there are white people who fight against racism (hi!), or that there are straight people who support LGBT rights, or that there are feminist men (hi again!), or that there are religious people who promote secularism.
There’s so much else packed into this speech that I’ll never be able to discuss it all. If you want, you can read the full transcript here. And now, I’d like to ask, what do you think of the speech? What are your favorite parts? Do you have any other thoughts?