This past Monday, we celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated when he was only 39 years old. He would have turned 82 this year. This is the perfect time to think through the legacy and the lessons we should take from his too-short life.
He delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963, from in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. It was 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. About 250,000 people gathered that day: black, white, young, old, Northerners and Southerners, to be a part of a "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."
Today, with unemployment hovering near 10 percent and a burgeoning deficit, Americans could use another "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."
As I noted in my recent book, "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own," "King's experience as a preacher and speaking thousands of times provided him with cadence, rhythm and emotion to connect with his audience. His speech did not simply address the problems at that time, but provided an expanded view -- a higher goal -- for which our country could reach. Rather than focusing on condemnation of the administration and complaints of unfair treatment, King focused his speech on reaching higher and making progress together."
He often drew on the imagery from well-known Bible passages to communicate with his audience, and this speech was no different:
"Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. ... I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character ... that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
It would be impossible to fully appreciate King without understanding the influence of his faith and his background of Biblical knowledge. His father, the Rev. Martin King Sr., led the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for four decades, beginning when his son was an infant, until seven years after his son's assassination.