Forty-seven years ago this weekend, on a sweltering August day often remembered simply as the March on Washington, my father delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. A memorial to him is being erected at the Tidal Basin, not far from where he shared his vision of a nation united in justice, equality and brotherhood.
This weekend Glenn Beck is to host a “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial. While it is commendable that this rally will honor the brave men and women of our armed forces, who serve our country with phenomenal dedication, it is clear from the timing and location that the rally’s organizers present this event as also honoring the ideals and contributions of Martin Luther King Jr.
I would like to be clear about what those ideals are.
Vast numbers of Americans know of my father’s leadership in opposing segregation. Yet too many believe that his dream was limited to achieving racial equality. Certainly he sought that objective, but his vision was about more than expanding rights for a single race. He hoped that even in the direst circumstances, we could overcome our differences and replace bitter conflicts with greater understanding, reconciliation and cooperation.
My father championed free speech. He would be the first to say that those participating in Beck’s rally have the right to express their views. But his dream rejected hateful rhetoric and all forms of bigotry or discrimination, whether directed at race, faith, nationality, sexual orientation or political beliefs. He envisioned a world where all people would recognize one another as sisters and brothers in the human family. Throughout his life he advocated compassion for the poor, nonviolence, respect for the dignity of all people and peace for humanity.
Although he was a profoundly religious man, my father did not claim to have an exclusionary “plan” that laid out God’s word for only one group or ideology. He marched side by side with members of every religious faith. Like Abraham Lincoln, my father did not claim that God was on his side; he prayed humbly that he was on God’s side.
He did, however, wholeheartedly embrace the “social gospel.” His spiritual and intellectual mentors included the great theologians of the social gospel Walter Rauschenbush and Howard Thurman. He said that any religion that is not concerned about the poor and disadvantaged, “the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them[,] is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.” In his “Dream” speech, my father paraphrased the prophet Amos, saying, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The title of the 1963 demonstration, “The Great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” reflected his belief that the right to sit at a lunch counter would be hollow if African Americans could not afford the meal. The need for jobs and shared economic prosperity remains as urgent and compelling as it was 47 years ago. My father’s vision would include putting millions of unemployed Americans to work, rebuilding our tattered infrastructure and reforms to reduce pollution and better care for the environment.
In my efforts to help realize my father’s dream, supporting justice, freedom and human rights for all people, I have conducted nonviolence workshops and outreach in communities across this country and numerous other nations. My experiences affirm the enduring truth of my father’s words: that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and that “we are all bound together in a single garment of destiny.”
I pray that all Americans will embrace the challenge of social justice and the unifying spirit that my father shared with his compatriots. With this commitment, we can begin to find new ways to reach out to one another, to heal our divisions, and build bridges of hope and opportunity benefiting all people. In so doing, we will not merely be seeking the dream; we will at long last be living it.
Martin Luther King III, president and chief executive of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.