It was on this date in 1963 that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of thousands and in a singular moment of grace planted the seeds of a profound change in our nation and our culture. The seeds he planted in that speech have grown over the years; we see the fruit of that change everywhere in our country.
While he had in other places and other contexts described the evils of segregation and violence against persons of color, on this occasion he did not use the moment simply to catalogue these injustices. Instead, he shared a vision of what this nation could and should be. He did not say, “I stand here before you to denounce an evil.” Instead, he submitted his voice to the spirit of prophecy and announced, “I have a dream.”
That day, within living memory for many of us, we heard what I believe was truly a word from God proclaimed by a prophetic voice, and in that prophetic moment we were given a vision toward which we could move. The work is by no means done. The vision is by no means completely realized, but we are a better nation, a better people, less divided by the accidents of race and color than we once were. We still have a long way to go, but thanks to the vision, to the dream announced to us that day, we often see the children of former slaves and the children of former slave owners together at the table of good will, and for a new generation it is no longer even a thing of wonder, but a commonplace occurrence not worthy of comment. Thank God.
I was thinking about all this in the context of this political season which has been particularly rancorous. The tools of critical thinking and analysis have languished as candidates are presented in caricature and complex issues are condensed into soundbites. Anger and animosity have been openly encouraged by those who seek or broker power. Negativity and blaming have fanned the flames of discontent. Insinuation, innuendo and outright falsehood have been deployed freely and truth has suffered even more than usual as lines have been drawn which have too often bruised or severed the bonds of friendship and even family. Adamantine opinion has short-circuited courtesy. All have sinned and fallen short of what could be a glorious national conversation.
On this anniversary of Dr. King’s speech as we recall this pivotal moment in our history, it is good for us to remember the tremendous power of lifting up a positive vision. It is always, in the long run, far more powerful than simply denouncing the evil we think we see.
I want to believe that we can still work our way through our differences by holding up our common vision and reminding each other of our better intentions. We have the language of those better moments alive in our heritage. We do not need to reinvent it, only to reclaim it.
I like to think that even in our disagreement about how, exactly, things should work, we do really still believe that all are created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I like to think that somewhere beneath all the rhetoric we do all still believe that we, the people, established and ordained this nation’s governmental structure and codified it in our constitution in order to, among other things, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. I like to think that we give more than lip service to the idea of liberty and justice for all. I want to believe that, when all is said and done, we do still understand that ours is a government of the people by the people and for the people— that within and underneath all the talk about “the government” we are describing not only “the people” as an anonymous collective but real individual persons, fellow citizens who are doing their best to serve as they have been elected, called or employed and who are subject to the same laws and expectations. I want to believe that we understand that the institutions that we established through the processes of our government were not created to be our nemesis but are, rather, tools of our own making to accomplish our mutual goals. I want to believe that we all understand that the individual rights we have guaranteed to each other can only be fully enjoyed in the context of mutual responsibility and support.
We are, under God, still one nation. We are still fulfilling the dreams and hopes of visionaries who came before us. We are not, each of us, in it for ourselves or by ourselves; we are in it together for each other. We did not stand up every morning in school and assert our individual rights, though we understood them to be guaranteed by our mutual code of law. We did not stand up every day in school and announce that this already is a nation of liberty and justice for all; we stood up and pledged that we would strive to be such a nation together. We pledged allegiance to a hope and a vision. We pledged allegiance to a dream, a future reality that will always be still in the making.