Martin Luther King Jr. Day Rekindles the Flame of Hope
Now is the time to remember the words of the great orator.
When I graduated from high school in the late 1980s, the world seemed to be filled with hope. I had not known war, my family was prosperous even in the era of Reaganomics and it felt like the world was shifting toward permanent change for good. Racism seemed to have been eradicated by the panacea of education and time. I know now that I was young and naïve, convinced that I could make the world a better place simply by dreaming it.
Then came the Persian Gulf War, Rodney King and Sept. 11. I am the first to admit that these events--as well as many others--have left me cynical and jaded. That flame of hope kindled long ago and that had once burned so brightly is now only faintly flickering.
But there are moments when I can still feel it, and though few and far between these days, I am always grateful for the reminder of the dream.
One of those moments always occurs when I teach a unit on speech to my English students. The students watch several examples of speeches, good and bad, emotionally draining and hysterically funny, from Bill Gates to Will Farrell. But the one that still gets to me every time is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
I’ve listened to this speech dozens of times. I can even recite entire lines without thinking, but when that classroom is filled with his powerful voice speaking of equality and freedom, I am still often moved to tears.
What’s more is that his words still have meaning for my young students, especially those who experience racism in their own lives. I see in their eyes the hope that they 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.”
Sadly, it is still just a dream for them in many ways, but then I am reminded of a trip my daughter and I took to Washington D.C. on a frigid Jan. 20, 2009. Along with about 2 million others--no doubt the “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners”-- my daughter and I watched our 44th and first African-American president take office. There we were, “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” joining together at the “table of brotherhood.” I wasn’t sure I’d see it in my lifetime, but there we were.
And there it was: hope.
Monday we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In light of the recent shootings in Arizona (a state that once resisted celebrating the national holiday), and the increasingly caustic political climate in the United States, it might be worth remembering King’s words:
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must ever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”
For my part, I will try to relight that flame that once burned inside my heart.
I need it now more than ever.