Much has been said this past week on the marking of 50 years since the Freedom March in Washington, D.C. Most people today don't know specifically what prompted the march in the summer of 1963, nor do they fully understand why 250,000 people showed up. It wasn't to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because, at the time, he hadn't gained the stature that he achieved later in life.
While he was a civil rights leader of his time, he was one of many speakers that day. People were marching and demonstrating because this was a time African-Americans -- as well as many whites -- were flexing their proverbial muscles against the injustices toward people of color.
The people who showed up came to tell their leaders their civil rights and freedoms had not come their way in America and that they had done without long enough. They didn't come just to hear speeches. As it happened, they heard a speech that many believe is one of the most important speeches of a generation. And those people who made the trip to Washington were fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to hear it.
Today, when people are asked what Dr. King would think of how America has changed, almost without exception the response is, "We have such a long way to go." Rather than look at what has happened in one generation, they would rather lament what hasn't happened. They see America as a glass half empty. Of course, most of the people saying that today either weren't born when King made his speech or were so young at the time they can't really appreciate how much things have improved in the past 50 years.
The truth is, we will always have a long way to go with civil rights and civil justice, by the very nature of the beast. Because of the open-door policy our country has toward immigrants, there is always a minority struggling and trying to gain freedom for themselves. Plus, there is a very basic reason why this struggle will continue: mankind has not learned how to live in harmony.
But it would be hard to imagine that if he were alive today, King would not be utterly amazed to find an African-American serving as president and another as Attorney General in the Justice Department. He would be equally surprised by the numerous African-American men and women elected at state and local levels of government and to local school boards. When he went to classrooms throughout the country, he would be so pleased to see the classes divided pretty equally between whites, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians. Certainly, one would hope he would say that America is moving in the right direction.
Is it moving in a perfect direction everywhere? No. Does the fault lie solely in the hands of the majority? No. When one looks at the old pictures of the civil rights marches, you see King at the front in the point position of the group. The others within are behind him. It's almost reminiscent of Moses leading his people to a better time and place -- he in front, the people following. Symbolically, they are marching to take on those who they feel can change their circumstances.
Certainly there is some truth to both of those beliefs. But the entire truth of who is responsible and who can change the future is not solely in the hands of those who hold the power. If King were alive today, he would know that all too well.
Perhaps if King could miraculously appear today and lead a similar group of followers, he might just stop and turn to them and say, "We, too, share in the responsibility, fault, and blame for our plight. We can't just believe that those we march against can solve all of our problems. We have a responsibility to ourselves and our families. No one else can make you successful or can make your children go further in life than you have. Let me ask you now: how well are you taking care of your families? How well do you value education for yourself and your family? How well are you taking care of your communities? How well are you taking responsibility for your own dream?"
King was right. We should all be judged by the content of our character. If you have the kind of character that kills people because you are bored, or you don't support the children you have brought into the world, or you live the life of a gangster, then you can count on being judged by the content of your character. And it will have nothing to do with the color of your skin.
In 1963, King demanded of the nation that it take stock of the legacy it was leaving its children and on how we were treating one another.
What would he say today to those who demand more from the government and behave as though someone else should handle all their responsibilities for them? Are those who keep demanding so much from others demanding just as much from themselves? Are they handling their personal freedoms lawfully and responsibly -- the very freedoms King and others fought for and some died for -- or is everything that goes wrong in their lives always someone else's fault?
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