It has been 50 years since the world first heard Dr. Martin Luther King’s inspirational ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. Today I pay homage to his address, envisioning what King might say today if we could bring him back to witness the state of the black community in 2013. What would his reaction be? What words of wisdom might he impress upon us all?
Based upon his own words, I believe MLK would have approved of this exercise. In his lifetime he encouraged us to ponder, to question, to imagine. He told us that,”The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
I cannot feign to compete with his eloquence, and some may feel that my interpretation is the epitome of presumption, but I hope that this speech captures the pride, hopefulness, blunt honesty, and ambition of the man who dreamt that someday every black man would have the opportunity to be all that he could be.
Half a century ago, I had a dream. A dream I hoped would become reality.
Five decades ago I stood in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial: I stood before an army of hundreds of thousands of fellow Americans of all races who had marched upon our Capital to claim the unalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that were due all men.
I lamented to those who stood with me on the plaza that one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, black Americans were still not truly free. We were chained by compulsory segregation. We were crippled by legal discrimination. Our opportunity to reap the rewards of American prosperity was thwarted by a society that denied us the same rights as other Americans. A black man, no matter how capable, was relegated to the back of the bus, barred from equal standing with the white man.
I understood that it was up to us to open America’s eyes to the injustices against their fellow man. No one was going to do it for us.
Fifty years ago, I was but a humble part of a movement that helped give rise to laws outlawing racial discrimination, laws asserting the enforcement of civil rights and equality for all. Finally, the manacles of sanctioned bigotry had been severed.
But as I stated then, 1963 was not an end, it was a beginning.
Had you told me fifty years ago that, at the dawn of the 21st century, black men and women would graduate from every prestigious college in the land, that they would take their place as doctors, lawyers, esteemed college professors, influential media moguls, executives of major corporations, revered athletic stars, senators, governors, and yes, even President of the United States, I would have praised God that my dream of equality had become a reality.
But alas, my brothers and sisters, it has not.
Though in some ways we have made great strides, we have left too many brothers and sisters behind. Too many of us are convinced that we are not worthy of opportunity.
I am saddened by the hopelessness of strong, smart, able people who see no possibility of getting ahead, the wasted generations who cannot break through the cycle of indigence. I refuse to believe that our circumstances do not permit us to do better than we have. I refuse to believe that we are not capable.
Today a quarter of all black Americans live in poverty, nearly two and a half times the rate of whites. Nearly half of black adults are without a high school diploma. We comprise 13 percent of the nation, but nearly 40 percent of those in jail. We cannot accept this.
I am mindful of your trials. Your life may be overwhelmed by fear, by poverty, by misery. But as I said fifty years ago, “Let us not wallow in our despair.” The hard truth is that success is much more difficult for the disadvantaged. But we must not let that deter us.
What good is opportunity when you have not been taught to pursue it? What use are inalienable rights if they are squandered?
I believe. I believe in you, and in a day when the statistical disparities between the races are negligible.
Fifty years ago I told you, “We must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
Offer no excuses, my friends. We must believe that we hold the keys to our success in our own hands. Because we do.
When the deck is stacked against us we cannot afford to be weak, my brothers. Some may have it easier than we do, some may have been born with advantages we don’t possess. We do not have the luxury to be undisciplined or to make poor choices. There is too much to do, and too many of us getting lost every day.
Prejudice still lives. Though the laws were rewritten, there will always be hearts and minds that shut themselves from fairness and equality. Yet we must not use their malice as an obstacle that bars our success, but as a catalyst, the vehicle that will drive us towards excellence.
We have come far in some ways. We’ve proven that a black man can achieve anything. What should we have learned from Jackie Robinson, that great athlete who broke the color barrier in baseball? That the means through which to successfully hurdle obstacles is excellence. Today, African Americans have altered the face of American sports, not by coercion, not because the American people benevolently agreed to include them, but because they are athletes who have proven that they are the best at what they do. The same is true of every African American who has reached success in any field.
Brothers and sisters, we can compete in every arena of society. We are strong. We are superstars. We are thinkers. We can overcome. Now is the time to seize our opportunities with sweat and diligence, no matter if our goal is a plumber, a pilot, or a poet.
Fifty years ago I said, “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.” Let none of us compromise on this dream. Let us never be afraid to look in the mirror and judge our own character. Let us seek leaders who aren’t afraid to point out our shortcomings as well as our strengths.
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and our own hell has been paved by people who have taught us that we cannot stand on our own two feet. We must not believe it. Neediness is just another form of slavery. Those who cannot support themselves forge their own chains.
Some tell us that those living in poor communities don’t have the discipline. They say ‘those people’ don’t have the perseverance. Do we accept this?
What has held back our brothers and sisters? Demoralization, uncertainty as to how to find a course to success, generations of young people who turned to negative influences for support when families became shattered and broken.
Too many of our sisters do not see the value of education. They think opportunities are for others, but not for them. Single-parenthood is the strongest indicator that a child will live in poverty. But how can we ask a young girl to imagine a better life when every woman a she’s known is a struggling single mother?
Too many of our brothers abandon the children they bring into the world. Too many of us have fallen into the quicksand of dependency. Dependency on substances that eat away at their spirit and their potential. Financial dependency on others that eats at their self esteem. Too many see no option but poverty. Too many of us live in fear of violence. Too often do we die at the hands of one another.
We have adversity to overcome. We have a difficult uphill struggle. But when we have respect for ourselves and our community, when we believe in our potential, when we look to our future and do what it takes to reach our goals, we allow no one to stop us.
We used to be poor in pocket because we had no opportunities. Now too many of us have become poor in spirit. No law will rectify this. No government assistance program will bring our brothers and sisters to our rightful place in society. No one can bestow us dignity. We must find it within ourselves.
Education is the key that will unlock our shackles. Be unafraid to excel in whatever you pursue. We must ignore the malevolence of the bigoted. We must pay no heed to the well-intentioned who think we are incapable. We must disassociate ourselves from those in our own community who threaten to drag us down.
Lay down your weapons, your hate and your distrust. Anger will not bring us closer to our goals. As I said before, “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.”
A half century ago I beseeched my brothers to “go back to the slums and ghettos, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.” Today I ask the same of every successful black American, giving back with guidance and inspiration. Did I not tell you that, “if we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values – that all reality hinges on moral foundations”?
We must aspire to higher goals with the self-confidence of those who have earned the right to be proud. We must acknowledge our faults and not fear critique. We must live a life of dignity no matter how poor our circumstances. We must remember that each and every one of us is a role model for those around us.
We cannot allow my struggle to have been in vain.
The best way to honor our ancestors, enslaved and brought here by force, the finest way to pay homage to the generations who fought and died for your freedoms, the clearest way to demonstrate your love for your children, is to seek success and take your rightful place in this great land of opportunity.
Reach out to your fellow brother. Make a commitment to the ones you love. Provide for your children, not only in dollars but also in love, support and encouragement. Find the courage to break free from destructive influence and forge your own path.
Fifty years ago it was up to us to change the condition of our lives. It is still up to us today. Our destiny is in our own hands.