He wasn’t even supposed to be the headliner that day. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was just one of the speakers on August 28, 1963. The well-known names, like A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Whitney Young of the Nat
He wasn’t even supposed to be the headliner that day. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was just one of the speakers on August 28, 1963. The well-known names, like A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Whitney Young of the National Urban League and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, had called for this March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and an estimated 250,000 showed up, the largest demonstration ever in the nation’s capital.
Dr. King was already known for his oratory skills, but there was no star.
But 48 years later, it is Dr. King’s likeness that graces the national mall, joining memorials to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. His granite likeness is part of a national monument, a memorial to his life and his work, and, yes, a commemoration of his speech that day, which is recited by school children around the country – and around the world. “I have a dream…” is as much a part of our country’s life as “Four score and seven years ago…” and “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
While some would question whether Dr. King would want a $120 million memorial monument in his name, it is ultimately the wrong question. Two years later, Dr. King, already a Nobel Prize Peace Prize winner, moved into a building on Chicago’s West Side to protest discrimination in housing and education. While national leaders knew him and sought him out, he remained grounded and never thought that he was bigger than the movement. He would not have wanted a holiday in his honor and a lavish monument would not have interested him.
Monuments and memorials are not for those being honored. They are for us.
The memorial celebration, which may draw as many as one million people, including President Barack Obama, to the nation’s capital, is also a call to action.
Right about now, this nation needs a reminder about the importance of fighting for jobs and freedom. When we have politicians willing to gut social services and lower the nation’s financial status just to prove a point to a radical fringe, the lessons of 1963 become just that much more relevant. While we are no longer fighting a violent Jim Crow in the South and blatant discrimination in the North, our freedoms are being challenged in many other ways, and the nation’s jobless rate – particularly in our community – cries out for concerted action.
Hopefully, the celebration of the dedication of the memorial will also bring about a dedication to a rekindling of the movement that Dr. King dedicated his life to. Hopefully, after all the speechifying and marching and singing, participants in the celebration will resolve to roll up their sleeves and continue to work for jobs and freedom.
We have to remember that the fight is not won just because there is a paycheck, or because the right to vote is protected by law. Paychecks can become pink slips, and laws can become yesterday’s legislation.
Dr. King recognized that the journey to the mountaintop was a process, and even the election of a Black president does not constitute the top of the mountain. Dr. King did not seek a temporary freedom. He wanted to sing out, “Free at last!”
Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender