Imagine a year in which you are invited to the White House to meet with a sitting president, your daughter is born, you are arrested and placed in solitary confinement, you deliver a historic and nationally televised speech, and you are named person of the year by Time Magazine. That was Martin Luther King's year in 1963! In 1963, at the age of just 34, Martin Luther King was considered by many to be the moral leader of the civil rights movement. He was an ordained clergyman, a gifted orator, a labor activist and an accomplished scholar with a doctorate from Boston University. He also was considered by many to be a revolutionary, a radical and, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an enemy of the United States. By all accounts, Martin Luther King was a complicated and controversial figure.
This coming Aug. 28 marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom when Martin Luther King delivered his "I have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We celebrate that speech today because it created a hopeful vision for the United States as a place where the color of one's skin simply does not matter; a place where a person is judged "by the content of their character," as Dr. King put it. That message of hope is all the more remarkable when we consider the context in which it was delivered. The march, attended by some 250,000 people, was a political rally in support of civil rights legislation introduced by the Kennedy administration and a celebration of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. The country was deeply divided in its views of civil rights and in many parts of the country, racism was rampant and legally sanctioned. At the same time, large numbers of Americans were becoming increasingly uneasy with the growing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. King's message was not one of unbridled optimism. What Martin Luther King said was "even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream."
Martin Luther King's message is as vital today as it was 50 years ago. It is this message of hope in the face of difficulty that speaks not only to who we are and the way things are today, but also to our vision of what we want to be tomorrow.
In the years that followed the March on Washington, King became an outspoken advocate for nonviolence and of economic policies that create greater equality. In his writing and speeches in 1967, he warned against the "giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism." Today, once again, we find ourselves a nation deeply divided by politics, economics and values. The challenges of climate change, gun violence in schools and shameless attempts to resurrect Jim Crow-era restrictions on voting rights remind us that the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism have not yet been tamed. King's legacy inspires us to rise above our current differences and dream of what we can be. His message encourages us to focus on what we have in common and the values we share, not the things that make us different. It reminds us to avoid placing blame and to look at the root of problems to seek solutions. Martin Luther King's dream is the one we all share that the United States is still a place where opportunity is possible for all.
You can help keep that that dream alive by participating the various events that will celebrate Martin Luther King's legacy this month. Support the Martin Luther King Essential Needs Drive by dropping off donations at before Jan. 21. Attend the Tangled Web Conference on Race, Immigration, Poverty and Prisons at Western Washington University, Jan. 17-18. On Jan. 19, plan to participate in the 15th annual Martin Luther King Conference at Whatcom Community College, sponsored by the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force. On Jan. 21, attend the MLK day kick-off breakfast at Bellingham High School at 10 a.m. and then join the Poverty Action March at 11 a.m. Celebrate, participate, learn, contribute and help create the world we all believe is still possible.
Victor Nolet is a professor in the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University and a member of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force.
Tangled Web Conference on Race, Immigration, Poverty and Prisons; Western Washington University; Jan. 17-18.
Martin Luther King Conference; Whatcom Community College; Jan. 19.
Poverty Action March; beings Bellingham High School; breakfast 10 a.m., march 11 a.m.; Jan. 21.