Almost 50 years ago Saturday, Martin Luther King Jr. transformed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a modern-day pulpit with his message of faith and hope. He stood before the world and shared his vision for a different, better America. He inspired all of us to reach for our higher selves and lay down the burden of racial discrimination and hate.
Some of us were fresh from the jails of the South — from the beatings and violence, from attacks by police dogs, billy clubs and fire hoses. We were peaceful non-violent protestors arrested and brutalized for trying to exercise our right to vote, for freely choosing a seat on a public bus or asking to be served at a segregated lunch counter. We had struggled with this form of injustice for nearly 100 years, but we were not bitter. We were not hostile. We were not even angry.
We came in the spirit of love and non-violent protest. We believed, as King wrote a few months earlier from the Birmingham jail, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We believed that to gain dignity, we had to give respect. To gain justice, we had to show integrity. To gain the benefit of peace, we had to use the power of non-violence. We believed trying to destroy our adversary meant we would ultimately destroy ourselves.
Glenn Beck’s event
As I consider Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally that will take place on the National Mall on Saturday, and what has transpired in recent politics, it is so fitting and so necessary for us to review the message of reconciliation that Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed his life to convey. We have come a great distance as a nation, but our journey toward unity is not yet done. As I listen to the news, and sometimes even to my colleagues in the Congress, I wonder is it possible to exercise our right to dissent without hurting each other? Can we engage in civil debate without smearing the motives of our adversaries?
I know there are those who take issue with Saturday’s event at the National Mall, but King quoted William Cullen Bryant when he said, “Truth crushed to earth will (only) rise again.” We cannot manage the actions of others, but we can stand firm in our own non-violent convictions. With the knowledge of the truth as our defense, no information or misinformation can stop the power of a committed and determined people to heal a divided nation. Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come.
After a brutal campaign of violence in Birmingham, Ala., positioned to stamp out the call for justice, where police dogs and fire hoses had been turned on children, the nation and the Congress responded with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Kennedy said this about the police commissioner in Birmingham, “The Civil Rights Movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He’s helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.”
Regardless of the activity on the Mall this weekend or the inactivity on the Mall in the days after, the question before us still remains: Who do we want to be as a people and as a nation? Do we want to go back, or do we want to move forward? Do we want to erase the steps we struggled to take in the ’60s by gutting or repealing the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the 14th Amendment, the Fair Housing Act, and other progressive measures? I say, we have suffered too long and struggled too hard to turn back now. As a nation and as a people, we cannot, and we must not go back.
We must not regress
But if we listen too long to the voices of fear and division and move to regress, I believe we will only have to pass this way again because in the final analysis, the way of justice, the way of peace, the way of love will always prevail. It may be long after you and I are gone, but I believe we are headed toward a divine destiny of real democracy — one nation based on simple justice that values the dignity and worth of every human being.
While we have the opportunity, it is our duty and our obligation to do what we can to bring this nation just a little closer to that American dream. And each generation must do its part to make us one people, one family, one nation at peace with itself.