On the eighteenth step of the Lincoln Memorial are engraved these words: “I Have A Dream”. They mark the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood and spoke during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. During my time in Washington, D.C., I would enjoy walking between our Nation’s Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.
Part of my routine was to climb all the steps of the Capitol as well as the Lincoln Memorial in order to assure a thorough exercise. In doing so, there were a number of times I engaged in conversations with tourists who were surprised to see the inscription on the 18th step.
That inscription, in many ways, offers a high-water mark for the civil rights movement. It points to a vision of a country free from racial prejudice and discrimination in which all of its citizens would have an equal opportunity for employment, education, housing and full public participation.
As the improvised part of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech began to build to its climax, he quoted with intense emotion the beginning of the song, “America”, crying out, “My country tis’ of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land of the Pilgrim’s pride, land where my fathers died, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”
Twenty-four years earlier, as a 10-year old boy, Martin Luther King had heard the voice of Marian Anderson, an African American performer, singing those words in her concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
Anderson, one of the greatest classical singers in the 20th century, sang at the Lincoln Memorial at the invitation of President Roosevelt after she had been refused any other venue in the then segregated city of Washington, D.C.
An integrated audience of 75,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939 to hear her sing. During her concert, which was broadcast throughout the country on the radio, she sang “My Country Tis’ of Thee.” Historians have noted that she made a subtle but telling change in the first line when she sang, “My country tis’ of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee we sing.” By changing the “I” to “we”, she included her own African-American people.
Marion Anderson’s decision to sing “My Country Tis’ of Thee” itself drew on history. Seventy-six years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863, in the South Carolina Sea Islands, a Union naval officer had read aloud to a gathering of slaves the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared them to be “henchforth and forever free.” He reported that the newly freed slaves responded by singing “My Country Tis’ of Thee.”
As they claimed their newfound liberty, these freed slaves understood that they were part of the American story and entitled to all of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. But it took another century and a half for the descendents of those held in bondage to overcome deeply-rooted prejudice and discrimination that denied them opportunity and full participation in American society.
On Jan. 16, 2012 we will celebrate a national holiday commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King. From my perspective, the longing for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is still a dream for some in our society.
The upcoming national observance of the birthday of Dr. King is an opportunity for Americans of all races, ethnicities and faiths to reflect both on how much progress we have made as a society and on how far we still need to go.
It is easy to be inspired and uplifted by the soaring rhetoric of Dr. King, especially when he so powerfully evokes the vision of a society that has overcome racial prejudice and discrimination.
While the heroic efforts of Dr. King and the civil rights movement did finally help African-Americans, too many at-risk inner city children are still trapped in failing schools, drug ravaged neighborhoods and many are destined for a life of unemployment and poverty or incarceration or violent death.
All of it may be overwhelming, but I am reminded of the importance of our individual and communal commitment to liberty and justice for all. As in the 19th century struggle for the abolition of slavery and the 20th century movement for civil rights, in the 21st century there must be both public and private initiatives to address the sacredness and dignity of others.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.