A ‘Dream’ remembered

Published 9:36 pm Thursday, August 28, 2008

Forty-five years ago yesterday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most famous speeches of all time, perhaps the most famous of the 20th Century.

The address known now as the “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom during the American Civil Rights Movement.

“I was 8 years old when Dr, King made that speech,” said Mitchell Congress. “I remember vividly how his voice captivated the audience with its resonance and his vocabulary.

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“It was more of a prophecy than a speech; I don’t think even he realized that himself. The fact that Barack Obama is the first African-American to receive a major-party nomination for president shows that the dream is being fulfilled every day, politically, socially and educationally. In the 1960s, it was unheard of that an African-American would go to Harvard or Yale.”

King noted the 100th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by then-President Abraham Lincoln, and spoke of the state of race relations in 1963.

“In a sense, we’ve come to the nation’s capital to cash a check,” King told the hundreds of thousands in attendance. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’ but we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. …(W)e’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

The years of the Civil Rights Movement — highlighted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — were times of struggle as people of all races fought for equal rights and consideration under the law in terms of race.

“Segregation was turbulent then, especially in the South,” Congress said. “I was among the first group — a sample group — that made the jump to Demopolis High School from U.S. Jones High School in 1969. It was something new for all of us, both black students and white students. Looking back on those days of segregation, having to go in through the back door of restaurants and so forth, now blacks and whites are friends, and even intermarrying. Before, people were race-oriented, now the focus has moved from race to religion and other things; it’s gone from the racial fight to the moral fight.”

Creating a machine that can fly was a dream that came true; finding the cure for cancer is a dream that gets closer to becoming reality every day. However, the dream of racial harmony deals less with the mechanics of science than it does with human nature. While racism seems to have abated considerably since the 1960s, it still exists and will likely never be completely eliminated.

One local example of the progress that has been made can be seen in the history of the Demopolis High School Class of 1981. The school had separate proms for blacks and whites, but in 2001, when the class held its 20-year reunion, instead of having separate reunions as was the tradition, the classmates came together as one.

“It still has a way to go,” Congress said. “Racism still exists, but more on the social level. Now, people see social integration more than anything else, especially in the workplace. With quotas — good or bad — people feel that if they have to have 15 percent blacks, they will fill the rest with whites automatically, and now, you have to consider the Hispanic population. I think we’ve come a long, long, long way, and I don’t think we have very far to go.

“I read an article that talked about there being racial ‘tolerance’ in Demopolis, and that indicates that we don’t like something, but we live with it. I think we’ve gone from ‘tolerating’ each other to racial harmony, where we appreciate each other.”

The nephew of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the observance of the 45th anniversary of the civil rights icon’s “I Have a Dream” speech as Barack Obama prepared to become the first black man to be represent a major political party for president of the United States.

Isaac Newton Farris Jr., chief executive officer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, said Thursday that his uncle’s speech “still speaks to the hearts and souls of freedom-loving people everywhere” and that Obama’s fortunes are tied to the sacrifices of King and other heroes of the civil rights movement.

King delivered his remarks on Aug. 28, 1963 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where plans are underway to build a monument to honor him.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.