Today, a half century ago, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on a hastily-constructed platform in front of the Lincoln Memorial at The National Mall in Washington D. C.. For a moment on that day, America stopped to listen. Today we can be forgiven if some wonder how much any of us have heard.
Dr. King was the final speaker at, to that time, the largest day-long civil rights rally in American history, a rally that demanded, not asked for, "jobs and freedom." It attracted a quarter of a million people who heard a powerful declaration of purpose that King, himself, had entitled, "Normalcy-Never Again."
The normalcy of the United States as our nation's capital simmered in the late summer heat fifty years ago was very much a separate and even more different nation than the one in which we awoke this morning. And yet it is very much the same.
While for some of us, the events of 1963 could just as well be that of 1863, because they seem so long ago or, for some, before we were born, it is for many just the turning of a page, a look back both in sorrow and in anger at broken and battered lives as well as at missed and misspent opportunities.
The United States of 2013 struggles to re-establish its own middle class after the longest recession since The Great Depression. What we have learned is that poverty, of the soul or of a bank balance, has little interest in or use for race, creed or color. Money doesn't talk; it swears.
And with a decline of economic fortunes, many of us have become harder people, less willing to give, to share and even less interested in caring about the rights of those like, and often unlike, us who are our neighbors and fellow-citizens. In some ways, the snapshot has yelllowed but hasn't changed all that much in fifty years.
Dr. King's America on that August day in 1963 had, as it did every day, despite fine-sounding and high-minded efforts in ten decades since the Civil War's end, black people who were still systematically disenfranchised with more than two-thirds denied the right to vote; where 'separate but equal' was still more prevalent throughout our country than the right of access to integrated schools, public washrooms, drinking fountains or buses and trains.
We were then, as difficult as it seems to those looking at recent Supreme Court rulings on voter rights or who struggle with the hurt and heartache of Stand Your Ground having taken a young man's right to life and liberty, two nations who rarely spoke with one another about our shared goals or common ideals.
Instead, too often fueled by fear and ignorance, we were two tribes who scrupulously avoided dialogue and discussion on an ever growing divide of desires and aspirations.
For those of us whose children just started/returned to our schools earlier this week as another academic year begins, Dr. King's speech and the society and nation in which he spoke are a distant half-remembered historical dream of a long ago that disappears in the harsh daylight of Hard Times in the Land of Plenty with which so many of us must contend every day.
It was only after Dr. King chose to speak from his heart and less from his notes at the podium that afternoon that the power, the longing and the joyfulness for which "I Have a Dream" became famous became apparent.
His oratory soared, carrying everyone to new heights, those present in The National Mall and the millions more who watched on televisions across the country because while TV didn't know exactly what was happening, they did know it was important.
Fifty years later, Dr. King's dream is our dream. We are, at our best, a nation whose struggle in pursuit of our dreams lights the souls of those around the world and for whom we are a last, best hope.
King never said our journey would be easy and it isn't; nor is it over. Far from it. We have come a long way and yet we have a long way yet to come. We cannot get there by ourselves but only by taking the hand of the person to our left while offering ours to the person on our right-and stepping forward, together. And always.