Two score and 10 years ago a great American who now casts his own statuesque shadow over Washington, D.C., delivered an imaginative proclamation. A “beacon light” blinding Jim Crow’s gaze and offering hope to millions of American citizens – of all colors – marching hand in hand.
Fifty years later, we must face the tragic fact that the African-American is still not free. The life of the African-American is starved by poverty and the rapier jabs of micro-aggression. Fifty years later, African-Americans no longer live on a lonely island, but populated prisons in which they can commiserate over lost hope.
When the architect of this great speech spoke his magnificent words his voice reached the halls of Congress as a verbal offer of hope, prosperity and justice. Fifty years later, many wait in exile for the offer to be accepted and ratified.
It’s obvious today that America retains superior leverage in its adhesion contract. So we again embark on the “fierce urgency of now,” oxymoronically in perpetuity. Now is the time to awake not any more from the “dark and desolate valleys,” but from the slow progress but still dusk and sparse plateaus of disparity to eventually rise with the sun on the hilltops of the eastern shore.
Fifty years later the discontent is not owned by one race and thus, the nation must respond to a growing and formidable threat. The “sweltering summer” will boil the nation’s melting pot of which it is so proud and burn the bridges of freedom we have spent years constructing. Those who hoped that the African-American needed to “blow off steam” will be rudely awakened by the discontented charge of all Americans seeking change. Monday’s morals in North Carolina will blaze Friday’s trails in Oregon.
But we must continue to conduct our struggle with “dignity and discipline” where some have lost their way in misinformed rhetoric rather than informed action. We must not hate all those who disagree with us, as an injustice on the right is an injustice on the left. An injustice in Sanford, Fla., is an injustice in Newton, Conn.
“When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as access to voting booths is limited, the halls of our schools’ opportunities are narrow, and the path into prison is broad.
I still say today, that in spite of the “difficulties and frustrations of the moment,” we can still dream the American dream.
One day the vast red soil of Oklahoma won’t be disturbed with allegations of black teens killing a white teen out of boredom.
One day, articulate black women in Illinois won’t be accused of acting white, but not paid as if they were.
One day, a Hispanic youth in Pennsylvania, when compared to his white counterpart, won’t have a greater chance of entering the state pen than Penn State.
One day in the state of Alabama, little black boys can join hands with little Latino boys and live as fully recognized unions.
One day all of us will rely on our own heads to invigorate every community to evoke its own spirit of self-reliance and success and not at the feet of some institution to do so for them. But we must also look to those institutions to help fill those unjust gaps, remnants of the past’s lack of fierce urgency. President Barack Obama, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. Marco Rubio are fine examples of the opportunities America affords when we let freedom ring.
So, let freedom ring from the shores of Honolulu.
Let freedom ring from the Long Island Sound of the Bronx.
Let freedom ring amongst the cheers in “Death Valley” in Baton Rouge.
Let freedom ring on the sandy beaches of South Florida.
Then we can be free and thankful that “we are free at last.”
Kenneth W. Chandler II is a civil rights attorney and lobbyist with degrees from Vanderbilt University Law School and UNC-Chapel Hill.