Breaking with tradition, I’m not going to link to Martin Luther King’s famous speech. Instead I direct you to Charles P. Pierce’s eloquent essay on the long term effect of MLK’s legacy. Charles, being near to my age, echoes my feelings on the subject. Do read it all at the link, but here’s his opening that resonates with me:
I am a child of the civil-rights movement. I did not know I was one for a very long time, and I am not yet matured into a full adult of the civil-rights movement. Along with the Vietnam War, its dark and horrible doppelganger on the televisions of my youth, it was the central event of my life. But the country I grew up in, and the country I still love despite the horror and waste and ignorance of which it is capable, is a country transformed by the civil-rights movement.
And this rings so true:
We were not ready for that change. We fought it. We struggled against what we knew was right in defense of what we knew was comfortable. We were mystified by the hate and the murder and the bombs and the dogs because that was easier than understanding them.
With due respect to Martin Luther King’s dream, Charles points out that there was another speech delivered in defense of Civil Rights given by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 when he appeared before Congress and asked them to pass the Voting Rights Act. Excerpts as chosen by Charles:
But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For, with a country as with a person, “what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. [...]
But even if we pass this bill the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.
You can watch LBJ’s speech in full here. I’d note that in 1965, black Americans were commonly referred to as Negroes. It was considered the polite terminology. It would be a few years yet before the black community would rise up and claim their own identity as African Americans.
MLK’s life’s work transformed our society in profound ways. Sadly, even these many years later, the transformation is still not yet complete.