As we were watching on TV the dramatic events unfold in Washington last week when the Trump Mob stormed the Capitol, threatening the lives of the Vice President, members of Congress, and the police who tried to hold them back (and actually murdering one of the members of the Capitol Police), the image of a gathering 58 years earlier in August, 1963, illuminated our mind’s eye.
We are referring to the March on Washington, when more than 250,000 Americans from all across the country gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on a steamy summer day to demand “jobs and freedom,” an event that was climaxed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech.
The March on Washington was famous not only for Dr. King’s iconic words, but also because the unprecedented mass gathering of Americans was completely peaceful. Pundits and others had predicted rioting, but there were no arrests, no incidents, no violence — a stark contrast to the events of last Wednesday perpetrated by Trump’s Mob.
The March on Washington and Dr. King’s subsequent peaceful protests galvanized support for the goals of “jobs and freedom,” eventually resulting in laws such as the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act that ended segregation in the South and discrimination in the North.
We would note that even the best efforts of a revered figure such as Dr. King could not stem the tide of violent rioting that marked the 1960s, most notably Watts in 1965, Detroit in 1967, and Chicago in 1968.
Yet Dr. King’s legacy of peaceful protest is what endures today.
For those of us old enough to remember the 1960s, it’s hard to believe that it has been almost 53 years since Dr. King was assassinated while he was standing on a balcony in a motel room in Memphis. Dr. King was in Memphis to show his solidarity with striking city trash collection workers.
Every school child for the past generation knows well the story of Dr. Martin Luther King. But an elementary school textbook cannot truly convey the extent to which he brought about real change in our country. To anyone under the age of 50, Dr. King is just another historical figure.
But for those of us who can recall the 1960s, a time when racial segregation was lawful throughout half of our country and a stealthy racism prevailed throughout the other half, Martin Luther King stands out as one of the great leaders in American history, a man whose stirring words and perseverance to his cause changed forever the historical trajectory of race relations in America, a subject that some historians refer to as the Original Sin of the American experience.
However, as much as things have changed for the better in the past 53 years in terms of racial equality in our society, the events of last Wednesday also made it clear that we still have a long way to go before it can be said, as Dr. King put it in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963: “I have a dream that my four little 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.”
“What would Dr. Martin Luther King do if he were alive today?” we often ask ourselves. We can’t say for sure, but we do know that although King accomplished much in his lifetime, he would be the first to understand that the work for which he gave his life still is far from done.
Dr. King advocated for non-violent protest and he practiced what he preached. That’s a lesson that must be re-learned by each succeeding generation. We can only hope that his spirit and courage can continue to inspire this and future generations to bring about a world in which all persons are treated with fairness, dignity, and respect.