Fifty years ago, they stood at the Washington Mall with the Lincoln Memorial as a backdrop. There was a small city behind them, some quarter million people there to hear Martin Luther King make a speech, popularly called the "I Have a Dream Speech" that epitomized the civil rights movement in the United States. They listened in a land that still separated people according to caste.
A century before him, the President whose memorial formed the backdrop to the "I Have a Dream Speech" spoke at a town called Gettysburg saying in part that this nation was "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Lincoln's were spoken in a society that had eight months prior emancipated another society's slaves whilst holding on to their own.
Eighty-seven years earlier, the words "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..." were written by Thomas Jefferson, a gentleman schooled in principles of the Enlightenment, but whose ownership of slaves allowed him the time to write a document proclaiming freedom for all. His slaves had no hope of attaining the "unalienable rights" alluded to by their master.
The US Postal Service is issuing a stamp.
King said in part, “I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. … 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 their character. …”
What has happened in fifty years? Well, the President of the United States, the U.S. Attorney General, and others are “people of color.” But when a student in a California public school gets into trouble, the disciplinary form usually requests the student’s name, student number, and race before it requests the infraction! “Race” is an important identifier in applying for loans, blood transfusions, and other forms of public and private commerce.
Segregation or “The act or process of separating a race, class, or ethnic group from a society's general population” still exists. Major American cities are still ethnic mosaics because of past law as well as a tribal affinity for one’s own tribe.
Martin Luther King’s “dream” and the struggle for civil rights has focused on the plight of people descended from Africans brought to the New World literally kicking and screaming to build the commerce of the New World, and proscribed throughout the Western Hemisphere into a caste system that could not be escaped.
Ethnic segregation is not the exclusive domain of people whose ancestors were from Africa. For instance, the United States (like many other countries) has a multitude of many ghettos (ethnic enclaves) within its cities. Many of the early settlers to the States were brought over as indentured servants, “slaves” for only a set period of time; but others came permanently enslaved. The United States had parts of the country (notably the Southeast) looked down upon by other parts of the country--regionalism--how much of the formation of the state of West Virginia in 1863 had to do with disaffiliation with the coastal east by the mountainous west?
And there is religious bigotry: as Mitt Romney’s candidacy in the last presidential election became more viable, there were people that proclaimed that they would not vote for a Mormon—the same thing said about voting for the Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy--still our only Roman Catholic president. Mormons, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and people of other religions have also had to deal with bigotry because of their beliefs.
Paralleling the abolitionist movement in the United States was the woman’s suffrage movement which led to the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution, but education of females tended to lag behind that of males until fairly recently. Men outrank women in earnings, but lag in education. Stereotypes about powerful women are still rampant.
Twenty-one centuries ago, a religious leader, prophet, and civil rights leader commanded that we love one another. This simple phrase and others symbolize and summarize what King was pushing for in his speech fifty years ago. Martin Luther King took much of his philosophy and tactics from this Jesus of Nazareth. He had a dream, too.