Free at last

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 13, 2005

‘Thank God Almighty, we are free at last’

Monday is the nation’s day to pay tribute to the long struggle for equality by African Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not the only person waging a peaceful war on tyranny and injustice, but his is the face the first comes to mind when you think of all that was accomplished in the 1950s and ’60s to gain civil rights for people who were not really freed from the shackles of bondage in the previous decade. There is a reason his face and his voice is so deeply rooted in our consciousness as a nation.

A quarter of a million people were in Washington D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963 for the historic March on Washington – a gathering of people of all races and all backgrounds that is equaled in importance only by a much smaller gathering in Philadelphia more than 200 years earlier for the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the creation of a bold experiment in democracy.

Civil rights and workers’ rights groups gathered in Washington 40 years ago today to seek justice for the millions of Americans who were not allowed to live the American dream. These diverse groups, all jockeying for position and influence (as all groups do), were overjoyed that the young man who was getting all the national attention had agreed to be the last to speak that day and to limit his speech to four minutes.

Little did they know that though good speeches had been made during the course of that wonderful afternoon, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was going to deliver an address that would become the &uot;joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.&uot;

His &uot;I have a dream&uot; speech – which lasted for 16 minutes after he discarded his prepared speech – galvanized those diverse groups and people into a force for righteousness and moved a nation to finally free the people who were supposed to have been freed 100 years earlier with the Emancipation Proclamation.

From that moment on, &uot;the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination&uot; were an abomination to most Americans – injustices that had to be purged because it was right and just and in keeping with the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Dr. King’s speech didn’t change the hearts of every person, but it illuminated the dark recesses of enough hearts and minds and spirits to forever change this nation and finally restore the bright promise of freedom, justice and equality that is America.

There are many great moments in American history, but there are three that have extended the boundaries of freedom and liberty far beyond anything that had come before in any civilization: The Continental Congress adopting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; and Dr. King’s &uot;Dream&uot;.

What a country! We have yet to realize the true depth of Dr. King’s dream, but we’re getting there. I’ll bet even he would be surprised to see how much things have changed in the 40 years since he so eloquently articulated his dream for America. Maybe one day race really won’t matter. Maybe one day the dream will be fully realized.

Take a moment to reflect on some of Dr. King’s words 40 years ago:

&uot;…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 rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

&uot;…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.

&uot;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.

&uot;…Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

&uot;I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: &uot;We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.&uot; I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

&uot;I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

&uot;I have a dream today.

&uot;I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope

&uot;…And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’&uot;