Opinion: ‘Dream’ speech touched many

August 21, 2013


It was an atypical August summer day in Washington, D.C., 50 years ago next week. Temperatures were in the low 80s, about 10 degrees cooler than normal. Skies were partly cloudy. Most government officials were vacationing.

I was a young copyboy at the NBC News Washington bureau. Correspondent Jack Perkins asked me to accompany him to hear a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial.

What I knew about African-Americans was limited to my experience with two maids employed by my parents during my childhood and years playing college basketball.

I knew our maids only by their first names, a vestige of slavery when blacks were viewed as less valuable than white people and denied even the dignity of their surnames. Basketball exposed me to people I might not otherwise have met growing up in an all-white suburban Washington, D.C., neighborhood. Basketball and socializing with my African-American teammates began to teach me about race, class and discrimination.

Then came that August day. Never before and not since have I heard or seen a person with such rhetorical power, conviction and authority. For those who were not alive at that time, it is important to remember the enormous pressures facing Dr. King, his family and associates. Many voices rejected Dr. King’s nonviolent strategy. They believed such a tactic delayed and thus denied justice. Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale and his Black Panther Party and others preferred confrontation, including violence.

King thought it more effective to appeal to the better angels of whites. He saw goodness — or at least its potential — even in those who called him a communist and much worse.

Observing that sea of humanity stretching down the Reflecting Pool was the beginning of a turning point in my own view of civil rights. King appealed to religious themes at a time when much of America still responded to such ideals and even when some, especially Southern churches and Southern Democrats, used scripture to justify segregation.

The civil rights movement seems cool in retrospect, but it was dangerous for many and deadly for some. Friends of mine were beaten and jailed for marching for the rights of African-Americans — and not only in the South. Journalists were attacked.

This month, Turner Class Movies has been running the documentary “King: A Filmed Record ... from Montgomery to Memphis.” While it has long been available, first on VHS and now DVD and excerpts have been televised over the years, the broadcast of the entire documentary is magnetic. Mostly without narration, the film is allowed to speak for itself and speak it does ... loudly and powerfully.

One sees contorted faces and hears un-bleeped profanities hurled at black marchers. “Go back to Africa!” is one of the few slurs that can be printed in a family newspaper. The scenes are gut-wrenching, embarrassing.

Mine was not the only life touched by Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It is rightly called one of the greatest orations of all time. For those who were there, this is not an overstatement.

One wonders what Dr. King might think of racial progress today. Yes, there have been great advances in civil rights, but fewer advances in strong black families and economic empowerment. Dr. King’s sacrifice opened the door to progress for African-Americans. Perhaps he would say many who are mired in poverty need to go back and retrieve something they seem to have lost, including personal responsibility, accountability and, yes, even faith about which Dr. King often spoke as he salted his speeches with spiritual truths.

Such as this one: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

— Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.


jafs 4 years, 10 months ago

A surprising column from CT, and a welcome change.

I would disagree that King wanted to "appeal to the better angels of whites" - he wanted to fight for equality for black people by using our system of democracy and civil disobedience, rather than violence.

And, although he might suggest that poor people today make better choices, he would also undoubtedly look at the continuing lack of equality and discrimination against black people - for example, the vastly different treatment that black and white drug offenders get in our criminal justice system.

Kathy Theis-Getto 4 years, 10 months ago

How dare CT opine regarding King's thought of racism today! Takes a great amount of nerve to say African Americans should go back and retrieve something they seem to have lost while he basks in his white privelege! Sickening display and certainly not the kind of conversations we need to be having as Americans who desire to grow as a society. Too bad he will fool most white folks pretending to be something he is not.

jafs 4 years, 10 months ago

I don't really understand your outrage.

For most of this column, Thomas is very compassionate and supportive of King and his dream. It's only at the end that he throws in his own ideas, and includes "perhaps" as well. One might agree or not with his opinion, but it's not that terrible.

I personally don't find anything wrong with the ideas of personal responsibility, accountability and faith - I just don't think they're sufficient if our society is still lopsided in it's treatment of different populations, and those at the top of the income scale have diverted most of the income to themselves, and outsourced the jobs to other countries, resist raising minimum wages, etc.

Abdu Omar 4 years, 10 months ago

I am truly amazed at this article from Cal. I hope he has had a change of heart.

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