For a very young man, and woman, the opening of the 1960’s marked a beginning of a new epoch in our lives, and in the life of the world around us. If you were white, male or female, sixteen going on seventeen in 1961, all the world seemed to promise new hope, that winter and spring. And it proved to be no illusion that change would come, change for the better. President Kennedy, young enough to be a fully engaged father figure, or even a savvy, hip older brother, certainly an idealized role model, a man whose whole life seemed marked by good fortune and luck (his private suffering unknown to us) was pointing the way to a perfected American Century, at home and abroad, and an increasingly just way of life for all of us. It seemed a given, that wonderful early Spring, that the rising tide would lift all the boats. This was the perspective of a young white boy. This was my belief and faith.
In the Other America, while hope was aroused, to an equal extent the feeling sprang forth that the new leadership must be tested, words must be verified by action, and the most challenging barriers to freedom and justice scaled and dismantled. Few in the larger society believed that this change, however vital, would be easy. No one in the Other America of the oppressed did. Since 1619 African-Americans had endured the worst privations and sustained oppression and discrimination in the life of this continent. The litany of abuse and relegation to the absolute margins of society of Black America is simultaneously unimaginable and well known. Yet, somehow, through the grace of God, Black America sustained itself, and maintained a dignity in the larger world which not only nurtured the Black community in the most vital sense, it put the balance of society on notice, that change, one day, would come, for all society. But when, and how? Was in fact the early 1960’s to be that time? And who would lead, for no President, or Attorney General, alone, could effect such an overhaul of justice? It seemed unlikely, for all their good will and spirit, that they could even fully perceive it.
From the heartland of the American experience, and the African-American experience, came Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead America, black and white, to the new, broad, sunlit uplands of Justice. Drawing on the strength of the entire African-American experience, mustering a combination of deeply insightful words of promise, keen strategy, the brilliant operational doctrine of non-violent challenge to the bastion of segregation – the 350 year old American Apartheid – the deeply ingrained sense of the truth of the moral arc of justice, which must one day become tangible, which had sustained Black America through its history – and sheer physical courage – Dr. King and the men and women who marched and stood and spoke and sustained blows with him, faced down the most hardened resistance to Justice in this country – and for him, as for others, the final, tragic sacrifice -and, having so aroused the cautious but better instincts of the larger population, won. Won Justice. Won dignity. Won access to all public accommodations, whether in government or private hands, won the right to vote, the chance for a good job, housing, won the uncontroverted belief in this country that all are in fact God’s children, not only in the law, but in the eyes of man.
Today the young men and women of the early sixties live in a vastly different world. Much, very much, remains to be done to fulfill the dream of Dr. King, and the reality of his life. These challenges face us all, of whatever age, race, or station in life. But at least, in Dr. King’s words, citing an old saying from deep back in the culture of Black America’s faith: “I’m not where I want to be. I’m not where I’m going to be. But thank God, I’m not where I was!” None of us are where we were in that promising early Spring of 1961. And we are all far, far better for it. That we are is due in the greatest measure to the man we honor today.
Dr. King, along with Franklin Roosevelt, was, in my view, the greatest American leader of the Twentieth Century. He stands alongside, yet as the moral father of the rest of the best in his era, John and Robert Kennedy, Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta, and much later, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. By him the master political craftsman, Lyndon B. Johnson, was empowered to enact through Congress the three most important Civil Rights statutes of this century, those of 1964, 1965 and 1968. Dr. King stands with Nelson Mandela as the human keystone of our moral imperatives in this life. The promise of that long-ago Spring has not been achieved completely, but great change, unimaginable victories, have been won. They were not won without terrific struggle, including violent, terrible resistance, and sacrifice. But they were won. On this day, we should and do honor the great strength and endurance of the long African-American tradition, and the best of the American tradition, which gave us the man and leader who finally showed us the way to know the fullness of our country, and its long promise of Justice – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.