On Aug. 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the civil rights movement reached its zenith as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a crowd of over 250,000 people during the March on Washington. Demonstrators represented a cornucopia of Black and white, rich and poor, Christian, Muslim and Jew, illustrating the rich diversity that Americans so proudly affirmed aloud but which often evoked a complete reversal — sentiments fueled by anger, scorn and hatred when citizens could share their true feelings safely behind closed doors.
Dr. King compared the movement with those noble ideals and tenets upon which our democratic experiment had been founded but which still had not been extended to all of its citizens. He believed that the harvest could and would be plentiful but only if this nation could truly embrace the rhetoric it had long espoused — that is, America being that place on the hilltop where racial harmony and equality ruled supreme. That was King’s vision, his hope and his prayer.
Employing the words of an old Negro spiritual, King punctuated his stirring speech, concluding, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Now, almost six decades later, equivalent to if not greater than a lifetime for the average man or woman, freedom lingers just around the corner — reminiscent of a tightly-clenched promissory note — a check that would most certainly be returned bearing the stamp “insufficient funds” if we were to present it for payment at any financial institution. We have yet to put away adolescent means of resolving conflict, using man-made, high-powered weapons to express our frustration and rage instead of sitting down together so that more rational minds might discover peaceful avenues leading us toward compromised conclusions beneficial to all.
Humanity has since achieved technological wonders that only seemed possible while riding on Captain Kirk’s starship, the “Enterprise” — but within the human family and due to our own shortcomings, we’re light years away from being the kind of world which King envisioned. Our recently departed sister, Aretha Franklin, realized the danger that comes when we judge others simply because of their differences in one of her first chart-topping songs, “Think.” She would later advise us to stop trying to fool both ourselves or those around us with words that sounded good but which were just that — words — when she inquired, “Who’s Zooming Who?”
Even the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, would wax and wane on America’s propensity for speaking with the proverbial forked tongue, with his critique of folks “talking loud and saying nothing!”
Recently, within the span of one brief weekend, gun-toting fools interrupted an evening high school football game in Florida that left one teenager dead. Then, in the same state and only hours later, a solitary gunman took aim at participants of a popular gaming event, shooting, injuring and killing whoever stood in his path.
Yet, neither drive-by attacks in our neighborhoods or mass shootings carried off at festivals, movie theaters and public schools have not been enough to convince America’s leaders to accept the writing on the wall and bring about swift and sudden change. We are a nation holding fast to our right to bear arms, despite daily examples which confirm our inability to responsibly live with that Second Amendment guarantee.
When I was a little boy, I would allow my anger to occasionally get the best of me, resulting in a fist fight with a classmate or a neighbor. When we were through, we’d go our separate ways. In most cases, a victor would be declared. Less frequently, the fight would end in a stalemate. But in all cases, both sides agreed that the fight was over. We would not seek intricate means of retaliation or revenge.
I think it was because we realized, even though we were just children, that we had to figure out better ways to get along and share our common spaces. How much more violence, bloodshed and death must the innocent endure before adults will stop acting on our feelings like spoiled little boys and girls, angry because we can’t have our own way?