Steve Chatelier and Simon Moyle both shared with me the conviction that the individualism of contemporary political culture is what is killing us—for some, literally so.
Just today, while thinking more about these comments, I heard again a recording of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech before the Lincoln Memorial, in 1963.
What a brilliant speech it was!
Before the section which made the speech famous, King had developed many other images. He began with the idea that the American constitution was like a cheque, a promissory note, assuring all citizens freedom and equal rights. Now they had gathered to cash the cheque! But unfortunately there were ‘insufficient funds’.
Even so, King declares, his people cannot wait. They will not be told to ‘cool off’.
Here are some of those brilliant sections —which I think are still inspirational, for all of us who quest for a genuine democracy and the coming of justice, as King put it, ‘for all God’s children’.
(Apologies if any are offended by the use of the term ‘negro’ here, which King used right through the address. These words are direct quotation.)
"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. 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. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: 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. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
There is much to learn from this dreamer, not only for that situation of injustice as yet not righted.
We can all share his commitment to non-violence, yet with strong action. He refused to ‘cool off’. he refused to despair. He lived and died for justice and freedom. He was committed to community action, not individual consolation. We need this dream still!