Fifty years ago today, before 250,000 Americans who had marched to Washington for civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The speech is known by just about every adult American and celebrated by many, but much less vivid in our national memory and public conversation is the struggle that surrounded it.
Personally, it took me more than 46 years — my entire life, even though I have focused for more than two decades on racial and religious dynamics in America — to get it.
Two weeks ago I was standing on sacred ground — at the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Montgomery, Alabama. It was in this city that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955 and that King, then 26 and a local pastor, led the 381-day bus boycott that produced the first grassroots victory of the civil rights movement. And it was at this terminal that white and black Freedom Riders in 1961, most of them college students, were beaten for trying to integrate interstate bus travel — seven years after segregation had been declared illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court. And it was at the Alabama State Capital in the same city in 1965 that King and civil rights advocates — on their third try, after initially being beaten by state troopers — completed their 54-mile march from Selma in support of the right to vote.
I had come east and south with three former University of Washington students, on a civil rights pilgrimage. We wanted to see places where heroes had stood, where profound courage had been demonstrated, where people in authority had relented only when compelled. We visited 15 states, starting at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and ending at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where King was killed in April 1968.
We won’t be the same.