January 18, 2010
News & Opinion: The Story of an Old Record
I got the record from a flea market in Richmond, Illinois when I was in high school. It sat in my stacks for years, rarely really listened to. I had, after all, heard the speech many times before, in school and on television. It was his "I Have a Dream" speech, the "Let Freedom Ring" speech. I knew it... we all did. It is as integral a piece of American history as the speech that Jack posted earlier today—Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. It was upon coming home from work on Martin Luther King Day, probably around eight years ago, that I decided to give King's speech another listen. I opened a beer, scoured the record shelf, found the record, dusted it off and threw it on the turntable. I was only half-listening at first, letting the workday fall off my shoulders, but the speech Martin Luther King gave on August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington isn't something you can half-listen to for long. It was a speech that the people's representative's in Washington couldn't half-listen to, either. It forced them to take notice, demanded action and, along with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom it was given at, is often credited with helping build momentum to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is a speech that, it turns out, I hadn't really heard before... not as I was hearing it then. As the measured, ministerial vibrato in which King spoke started to shake me out of distraction and the words started to sink in, my eyes started to well up (and I'm not one normally prone to tears). It is a speech that breaks your heart before it begins to heal it, and that shone a light on the break in our country in the hope of healing it. Before speaking of the promise of his dream, the part we are all so familiar with, he spoke of the nightmare so many were living through. Before envisioning a day when freedom would ring from every mountainside, he spoke of a nation mired in the "quicksands of racial injustice." Speaking of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. King said that "It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity," but quickly noted that, in spite of that, "one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free." King had a great grasp not only of American history, but of moral history. He spoke of America's great promise to the world, and of it's default on that promise to its own citizens:
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.Listening to Dr. King's voice coming through the crackles of the record that day, and hearing the voices calling back to him from the crowd, I could almost feel, in the room with me, that arc of history he later spoke of when he said "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." Dr. King did as much during his lifetime as anyone to bend that arc, even though his assassination cut his work short and his dream is far from realized. We are still working on it, though—societally and individually—and it is powerful when we get it right. I listen to that record every MLK Day now, and would humbly urge you to listen to any speech of King's today, or pick up a copy of his 1964 book, Why We Can't Wait.