Last Thursday night I had the privilege of listening to Barak Obama ‘s speech in Denver, Colorado. Michael Steele and I were guests of Fox News. It was ironic to me that two African Americans sat with Brett Baier to analyze the historic speech of America’s most brilliant, political luminary.
As I reviewed the printed copy of the Senator’s speech, I could not help but think about the fact that 45 years before, the very soul of America had been changed by the speech of America’s greatest preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was about to enter the 4th grade in 1963. We lived in Cincinnati, Ohio at that time. My family had been staunch supporters of the civil rights movement, actively involved as foot soldiers. Nine years before, my father had been threatened at gunpoint by a Florida state trooper because of his involvement in voter rights advocacy. A mean-spirited, white trooper actually discharged his handgun as an intimidating act of terror. As a result of the threat, my father moved our family to Ohio.
At the time of the rally, dad was a government worker. Therefore, any involvement with such a rally would have been off limits. Yet my family and millions of other blacks simply believed that the lyrics to the song We Shall Overcome were true. We had heard King speak before and were impressed by his courage and conviction. My 79 year-old mother reminded me what historians have corroborated; the phrase “I have a dream” had been used by King prior to the momentous occasion of the Lincoln Memorial speech.
No one in my family saw the speech as a significant watershed moment. In contrast, the rally was deemed important and the growing momentum of the civil rights movement marked an unmistakable difference. My parents understood that America would change someday.
My father could not have known that in 12 short years he would have moved from being a mail handler in Cincinnati, Ohio to being the Director of Personnel at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing just before his untimely death of natural causes. The possibility of such a position was part of the change.
King’s message to America from DC took on a life and authority of its own. Somehow, King's message became the intellectual property for our entire nation. Blacks and whites alike quote the King speech as part of our common history. King has become more than just a great African American - he has become a great American. He has become a transcendent citizen – despite personal flaws and limitations.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.