It is hard to believe that 50 years have passed since the iconic words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech echoed from the base of the Lincoln Memorial on that sweltering August day in 1963 – as a diverse crowd 250,000 strong sang in unison “We shall Overcome Someday” as they marched on the nation’s capitol in the hopes of a better America.
As a child of 6, I could scarcely comprehend the inherent meanings of the march or the prospect that civil rights would one day hold for me or my children’s children.
But even as a youngster, I knew that I had not been spared the degradation of discrimination or the shame of second class citizenship that had precipitated the protestations at North Carolina lunch counters, on freedom rides bound for Mississippi or on a Bloody Sunday on a bridge in Alabama.
Nor could I deny the images of rabid dogs, wailing billy clubs, and pressurized water hoses that met non-violence with a type of licensed force that leapt from the pages of EBONY and LIFE magazines and from my TV console any more than I could deny my own grandfather’s murder at the hands of hatred long before my birth.
For 1963 America, the ring of freedom lay silenced by vitriol and a ‘way of life’ that had been handed down like grandma’s good china from one generation to the next with no expectation of egalitarianism or reparations for its most constrained constituents – unchained yet shackled a mere 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
America had a long way to stretch her hand from the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the enacting of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the face of moral fortitude, the 1963 America that I had been dealt, collapsed like a house of cards.
The march then was about the twin peaks of jobs and freedom.
But, freedom could not ring from the mountain tops without a breaking down of institutional ideologies that vaunted the color of a man’s skin above the content of his character. It could not yield its resonate sound without the reconstructing of an economic system that granted equal pay for equal work or a legal framework that guaranteed equal protection under its laws.
Examining the Dream through the prism of age with wisdom and experience informing my perspective, it appears that we had arrived at a point this summer where everything new seems old again.
We can certainly point to clear examples of progress as witnessed by the Inauguration of our 44th Commander in Chief and other notable examples.
In other cases however, our progress seems to have rolled back like Wal-Mart pricing. In 1963, it was Jim Crow laws. In 2013, it is the George Zimmerman verdict.
In 1965, it was the Voting Rights Act. Forty-eight years later, it’s the removal of Section 4 that brings us full circle and paves the way for a kind of voter suppression that we fought to stamp out more than five decades ago.
In such uncertain times then and now it is an unfailing hope and unwavering faith in God that has always been our sustaining force.
“… if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.”
– Romans 8:25
In his place of expectancy, Dr. King urged us not to “overlook the urgency of the moment.” Nineteen sixty three, he proclaimed, was not an end but the beginning — it is the fine thread of continuity woven throughout the tapestry of our complex and often contradictory history.
Assuming the mantle of today, we must not overlook the “urgency of now” in our continuing struggle for justice, economic empowerment, access to housing, childcare, education, healthcare, prison reform, entrepreneurship and so on.
The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington is our wake up call.
The anniversary of Dr. King’s watershed speech is a poignant reminder that the down payment on our freedom was paid in full on a sweltering August afternoon in 1963.
It is now our duty to take directed action to pass down the twin cause of jobs and freedom from one generation to the next like grandma’s good china.
Bishop T. D. Jakes serves as senior pastor of The Potter’s House, a global humanitarian organization and 30,000-member church located in Dallas. He wrote this article for On Faith.