The characteristic of greatness - whether we are talking about a great man or great art - is that it transcends time and place. It dips into that which is universally and eternally true and applies those truths to a particular moment and a particular place.
Re-reading, after many reads, Dr. Martin Luther King's words of Aug. 28, 1963, the famous "I Have a Dream" speech, his greatness rings clearer than ever.
Because King did indeed touch the heavens on that day and pull down kernels of eternal truths about freedom and the condition of man, those words of 40-plus years ago have relevance to our struggles today. They can serve as guidance in these difficult times.
Am I saying that King's message from 1963 can guide us in today's conundrums _ about our embroilment in Iraq, about the Middle East, about America's role in the world? Yes, I am saying this.
The power of King's message, the unquestionable reason that the movement he led was successful, was his appeal to the truth of freedom and its universal applicability to all men.
By identifying and appealing to the freedom of man as a universal and eternal truth, and going on to make clear that this truth defined what this great country is about, then King's conclusion _ the intolerability of conditions that denied any American full participation in this freedom _ could not be denied.
Beyond this central message, King made other very important points in this speech.
One of key importance was that responsibility for solving a problem does not necessarily imply direct responsibility in having caused that problem.
Although the responsibility clearly was in the hands of those Americans with power, overwhelmingly white Americans, to fix the problems in the country that limited the availability of freedom to all, this did not mean that all those same Americans were racists or had caused the problem to begin with.
The responsibility for fixing these problems came, rather, with being the beneficiaries of a country whose destiny and identity was fundamentally linked with the enterprise of freedom.
In King's words, white Americans "have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom."
He appealed to blacks not to allow suffering to translate into bitterness nor into categorical hate of white Americans. "Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred."
Instead, King exhorted black Americans to "Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive."
So Dr. King accomplished a lot of business that August day in 1963.
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