Updated: Jan 24, 2021
On August 28, 1963 an estimated 250,000 participants attended the March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom. Martin Luther King, Jr was one of many speakers at the event.
At the time he was not well liked in America. He was considered a “troublemaker” and a “communist”. As is well known now, he was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is known the world over for what is now known as his “I Have A Dream” speech.
What is not so well known is that part of his speech was not planned. As Henry Louis Gates suggests It was spontaneously included. He had given versions of the “I Have a Dream” speech many times before but had not written it into the text for this audience. Standing in front of a quarter million fellow Americans with many more watching on television and Mahalia Jackson repeating “Tell ‘em about the dream Martin!”, King, pushed his written speech to the side and America and the world were taken to church that day.
I have spent much of today thinking about Freedom. What it meant to Americans during the civil rights era and what it means to Americans now. I still think it means one thing to white America and another thing to black America. I won’t go into detail here but I do want to remind America that in the months leading up to their visit to DC, some of the 250,000 attendees of the 1963 March on Washington had been beaten, jailed, attacked by dogs, sprayed with fire hoses, spit on, cursed at, humiliated and had family members killed just for attempting to register to vote and express other Constitutionally provided rights.
75-80% of the attendees were black. An estimated 50-60,000 were white. How many of them departed that day in agreement and found common cause? I don’t know but less than a month later the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL was bombed and 4 children were killed. Less than 3 months later, Presidents John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The 1964 Civil rights Act and 1965 Voting rights act followed later. If anyone in America’s history had reason to be pissed off and storm federal buildings, they were probably in attendance that day marching for themselves and their children and their forefathers. Those marchers knew one thing that I think too many of us may have never learned, freedom requires responsibility.
When you believe you can do whatever you damn well please, then respecting rules, norms and other people's boundaries takes a back seat to you getting your way.
Recognizing and carrying out our responsibility to one another as citizens in a democratic republic can be inconvenient but is a necessary undertaking. Privilege and entitlement can all too easily make responsibility seem trivial and nonessential.
Thank you Martin Luther King, Jr for shining a light on how we are all in this together and for helping us understand that the oppressor too is imprisoned to the extent that they imprison the oppressed.
Let Freedom Ring!
*Updated to include JFK reference, correct spelling, sentence structure and include supporting links. 1/19/21