Saturday (Aug. 28) marks 41 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. One wonders the extent to which King could have had a sense that day, as he climbed the steps and positioned himself in front of the image of Lincoln, that the speech he was about to deliver would become a defining moment in American history.
What made King's speech so great? How could a black pastor, with roots a few generations out of slavery, ascend from the South and speak to a nation with words that would find a place in American history alongside the words of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln?
I think it is crucial to appreciate that King spoke first as an American. A central point that he drove home was that racial injustice is an American problem and that the destinies of black Americans and white Americans are intertwined. A crime committed is as much a problem for the perpetrator as for the victim.
Because King was able to scale the heights and see America's racial problems from the perspective of the ideals and truths in which this nation is rooted, he understood that the truths that informed the ideals of a descendant of slaves were the same truths that informed the ideals of otherwise great men who owned slaves.
Because King waged his battle from these heights, this man with many reasons to be bitter lectured against bitterness, with many reasons to hate lectured about love, with many reasons to be violent preached nonviolence, and with many reasons to play on divisions spoke about brotherhood.
One way to appreciate King's greatness and the power of the message he delivered is to look at history. Much of the blood that has been shed has been the result of political demagogues rising up and exploiting moments not so different from what America looked like in 1963. Times of stress and frustration, when injustice and suffering are clear and manifest, are times that are ripe for political demagogues.
A man less than Dr. King could have played to the passions of the crowd and consolidated power through the politics of hate, blame and envy. He could have talked about two Americas and haves and have-nots.
Instead, Dr. King talked about a common destiny, a brotherhood of man, and a free nation under God. He appealed to those in power to recall the eternal truths and ideals that make this nation great and to understand the extent to which those ideals had been lost and compromised. He reminded us that those truths and ideals are the unifying principles of our nation, and that they define the American community. He appealed to blacks to focus on those truths and ideals and not on that part of the nation that turned away from them.