Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr's Legacy Of Love
(Originally posted Jan, 2021 on vocal.media)
Allow me to set the scene: The steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, on an unseasonably warm February night. Not just any night, but two nights before my wedding. Jennifer and I decided to kill time on the mall after we arrived at Reagan National Airport to pick up her college best friend, only to discover the flight was running a couple hours late. It was 1999 and cell phones were not the ubiquitous appendages they are now so no heads up about the delay. We evidently didn’t call the airline for a flight status check, which led to my favorite pre-wedding memory.
We only lived about twenty minutes from the airport. We could have gone back home, but we realized we were being gifted an unexpected reprieve from the down-to-the-wire overwhelm that comes when only days away from your own wedding. So we took the time for ourselves. I don't remember why or how we ended up on the steps of the Lincoln. The FDR Memorial was Jennifer’s favorite; a life-sized walking diorama-esqe tribute reflecting various stages of Roosevelt’s life and Presidency. With its numerous water features, it was so much more dynamic and experiential than the static statue of the nation’s 16th head of state, but damn if the Lincoln Memorial isn’t still the most imposingly grand shrine of the lot.
So we found ourselves sitting on the steps, leaning into each other, talking with both an air of excitement and fatigue. Suddenly I heard a familiar voice; a surprisingly recognizable voice that was simultaneously impossible since the voice’s owner was long departed, but also because it was exactly where I should’ve expected to hear his voice. It was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr giving his transcendent “I Have A Dream” speech. Was I having an auditory hallucination? Given the look of confusion on Jennifer’s face, I clearly wasn’t the only one.
We sought out the source, and found a gathering a few yards away. A large gaggle of teenagers were piled on the steps, and on each other. Pacing back and forth in front of them, boombox held high over his head, evoking images of John Cusak’s Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything, was a somber looking man who, remarkably, didn’t fall as he locked eyes with his audience while he moved on the narrow step.We were just as transfixed. There was a weighty and palpable solemness to the occasion. Other passerbys stopped to watch and listen as well. We would learn afterwards that it was a group of high-schoolers and their history teacher from Chicago taking great liberties with the concept of ‘field trip’ as they visited various significant sites of the civil rights movement around the country.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington DC on Wednesday, August 28, 1963. Anywhere from 200,000 to 300,00 people attended the historic event. It was organized to bring attention to the civil and economic plight and rights of African Americans. Dr. King was the final speaker, and as we now know, his “I Have a Dream” speech did not originally contain the words for which the speech is called and known for. At the prompting of Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”, he abandoned his prepared text and famously improvised what might stand as the most inspirational oration of all time.
The timing of us hearing that speech, in his voice nonetheless, was poignant beyond measure. It was not lost on us that, as an interracial couple residing in Virginia, our marriage would have been illegal just a scant 32 years earlier, less than ten years before either of us were born. We were less than one generation removed from the horrific racist miscegenation laws that were the status quo of many states, including Virginia. It would take the arrest of a Virginian interracial couple, Mildred and Richard Loving (the absolutely perfect name) and their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to bring a national end to a heinous restriction in the landmark case Loving v Virginia (again, the name just makes it that much more sweet).
In his dream Dr King envisioned a nation where we would not be “judged by the color of [our] skin but rather by the content of [our] character,” and that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Some of his dream has been realized. Much of it has not. We still live in a nation where white supremacy, while no longer the law of the land, still maintains a firm hold on the hearts and minds of millions. Many of those who laid siege to the Capitol on January 6th were carrying the flag of the Confederacy, the symbol of the states that seceded from the nation in order to preserve their right to treat other humans as chattel, and then lost a civil war over it. They did so in the name of a President who began his campaign with racist rhetoric, and who at one point claimed they were “very fine people on both sides” when one of those sides were Neo-Nazis chanting “Jew will not replace us.” Quick tip: if you're on the same side with Nazis, you might want to rethink where you stand.
It is understandable that many of us felt drained of hope that Dr King’s dream would become reality in our lifetime. Had he not been assassinated, he might have celebrated his 92nd birthday this past Friday. Who knows how much hope he would still have? Then again, who knows how much further along the path of true equality we might be if he was alive today? Regardless, my hope tank is starting to fill back up. While no single person or party can fix what ails us, on January 20th we’ll be officially moving in a new direction. The siege on the Capitol was a taste of what can happen if we don’t. And let’s be clear, we’ve tasted worse before. Looking at you Tulsa, and oh yeah, did I mention the civil war? But we assumed we had evolved past that unrestrained barbarism. We keep being told such violence isn't us, but the truth is, it’s who many generations of us have been for literally centuries.
My hope lies in the notion that we’re beginning to accept that it’s not enough to declare who we’re not. We actually have to want to be who we say we are. And it starts with acceptance that some of us have played the roles of oppressor and victim for far too long, both consciously and unconsciously; that we’re not even aware of our implicit biases around race, ethnicity, gender, age, ability, or orientation; that we still struggle to accept ourselves for who we are, much less accept someone else for how they are; that we’ve placed to much emphasis on what’s happening outside of us instead of reconciling and healing what’s happening inside of us; that we will finally feel like we belong when we learn to belong to to ourselves first.
Dr. King reminded us, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” As I love myself more, as we all love ourselves more, I gain hope that I will experience my dream: a world of love that works for all.