Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King Jr. drew in part on the experiences and culture of rural African Americans to deliver his speech “I Have a Dream.” The iconic moment defined the civil rights era and still challenges us today.
Childhood is a time of impressions remembered and impressionability.
One of my early memories is being stretched out on the kitchen floor one evening. I was coloring a picture in one of those books about the different states. It happened to be Arkansas, with a picture of a logging truck. I remember hearing the news on the radio that President Eisenhower was sending troops to Little Rock to help “Negro” children get into the high school there.
I asked my mother why, and she gave a simple answer: Some people did not want to be around Negroes because of the color of their skin. Impression made. That was in September 1957. I was 5.
At some level, I couldn’t understand why people would be like that. On another, I was becoming a witness to a continuing quest for racial justice that shaped our history and still moves in our present.
The shocking spectacle of racial apartheid that accompanied my growing up is something I’d rather forget, except for the lessons of courage, nonviolence, love and commitment to fundamental equality that ultimately made our nation a better place.
Now, in 2013, we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s intensely eloquent “I Have a Dream” speech. It is a brief speech that passionately cries for racial justice on the land where we live. It is a speech of rural origins that recognizes and prophetically demands an end to racism in countryside and city.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plane, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
King was a modern day Isaiah. On that hot August day in 1963, he called for people to change their hearts, to be the most fully human they could be, to banish the evil of racial hatred.
So much of the nation’s black history is tied to the land, and that rural history became an integral part of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement that emerged before World War II and re-emerged after the war. The first three decades of the 20th century were a period of increased awareness of African Americans, because of the great migration of blacks from the rural South to northern cities, accompanied by African American music, especially jazz.
In fact, A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Walter White of the NAACP were ready to hold a march on Washington in 1941 to protest widespread racial discrimination. Leaders in Washington had verbally protested racial violence but would not interfere in perceived states’ rights. The refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to allow Marian Anderson to sing at the segregated Constitution Hall in 1939 was a highly visible manifestation of racism. In response, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership and helped arrange for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial, which, a generation later, was the focal point of King’s March on Washington.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, facing a pending war, did not want a huge demonstration that would point out a significant weakness in American society. Always the pragmatic liberal, FDR instead signed an executive order to promote equal opportunity and ban discrimination based on “race, creed, color or national origin.” The order, which became the basis for later anti-discrimination legislation, affected the defense industry that would employ hundreds of thousands of black migrants who were flocking from the rural South to industrial cities in the North and West.
The great migrations of African Americans opened the way for ending racial brutality, but not without struggle and violence against them in the cities where they came to live. Racist violence became more visible in cities, a larger blot on the nation’s collective conscience. That violence was countered by thousands of small and large actions of resistance in the North and South that gradually turned hearts and minds.
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 modern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
Nonviolence and determination could win, and echoes of the Liberty Bell would be heard across the land.
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement 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 spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
King had inherited the mantle as leader of the civil rights movement. He knew fear and suffering. He knew how to bring people together. The 250,000 participants in the 1963 March on Washington recognized that this demonstration of solidarity that included people from all parts of the country, all walks of life, rich and poor, rural and urban would continue with hope and a dream of a better life.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King became the man of the century. Within a year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination, including segregated schools and the patchwork of voter registration laws that kept blacks out of the polls. The 1965 Voting Rights Act strengthened voter protections. King’s dreams were beginning to come true.
Impressions of childhood five decades ago have their own dreamlike qualities. But an impressionable youth learned much about the aspirations of the oppressed and the courage that brings about change. These struggles are never-ending, but King’s spirit provides a real guide for the work yet to be done.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.