Yesterday, just after I picked Jack up at school, NPR ran the entire tape of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering his I Have a Dream speech. You can see a video recording of the speech here.
It's strange to think that in August, that tape will be 50 years old. Just think how far we've come since then.
Then, think how far we have yet to go.
Dr. King's speech is a tour de force of effective rhetoric, and I taught it as such in English 102 classes. Listening to Dr. King's voice yesterday in my car, I found myself speaking with him, saying his words out loud.
Jack noticed, and asked if I knew the words. I told him that the words were so important that yes, I did know a lot of them.
Jack is not at an age where he can appreciate the metaphor, the biblical references, the historical importance and context, the high and powerful rhetoric, though he is studying the Civil Rights Movement in school. Phrases like "victims of creative suffering" and "police brutality" and "valley of despair" and "oasis of freedom and justice" don't mean much to him.
I grew up in the south. I never saw the segregated water fountains or lunch counters or schools, but I saw segregated neighborhoods, I heard racist comments uttered freely and without thought, I saw news coverage of the Greensboro massacre in November, 1979, when I was almost 13 and attending a mostly-white private school.
I lived two hours from Greensboro. That massacre was in my back yard and an entire world away. I couldn't understand the politics and hate surrounding the massacre, but I did know that violence wasn't right, killing people wasn't right, wearing sheets or swastikas wasn't right.
That much I did understand.
My generation, however, saw far less of the dehumanizing ugliness of racism than my parent's generation, in large part because of the work and words of Dr. King and many others who stood up instead of by.
Jack's generation is growing up with an African-American president whose second inauguration will take place on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, and regardless of how you or I may feel about his politics, President Obama sets a powerful example of democracy's ability to move forward and expand its freedom and power to make true its belief that all men are created equal.
But Klan membership is growing. The ugliness isn't gone.
What is the content of our nation's character? How will we be judged? Will we ever truly be able to sing, "Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty. We're free at last"?