At CEP’s annual meeting in November, special musical guest Peter Yarrow recalled how in 1963 his legendary folk group Peter, Paul & Mary had actually been the “opening act” for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., performing right before his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. As the trio waited to take the stage, Yarrow fondly remembered singer Mary Travers squeezing his hand and saying, “We’re part of history now, you know.”
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of that watershed speech in our nation’s capital. But at that time, the famed ‘March on Washington’ itself was done to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed by President Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War.
Earlier this week, in his second inaugural address, President Obama evoked the memories of both men when he chose to take the oath of office with his hand touching two Bibles, oneowned by King, the other by Lincoln. Coincidentally—some said providentially—the great ceremony culminating the reelection of the nation’s first African-American chief executive also took place on the federal Martin Luther King Day holiday. The significance was not lost on the 44th President:
“We the people declare today that the most evident of truth—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
Of course, the most famous part of Dr. King’s historic speech is etched into the mind of everyone here at CEP: “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 the content of their character.”
[To hear Dr. King’s entire 1963 speech: http://archive.org/details/MLKDream]
That remains our goal here, as well. But we also realize that reaching it requires much more than just being colorblind. Tolerance, respect, honesty, compassion, patience, kindness, humor—all of these essential ingredients, and more—are just as necessary. But until the content of our collective character is full in all of those categories, much work remains to be done, in our schools and in our homes.
As President Obama said Monday, “Our journey is not complete… until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for… and cherished… and always safe from harm.”
In repeating this theme that “our journey is not complete,” Mr. Obama evoked the magnanimous compassion of President Lincoln’s own second inaugural address. Speaking in March 1865, just weeks before the end of the Civil War and his own death, the 56-year-old Lincoln asked us all to overcome our flaws. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…”
Nearly 150 years later, other wounds now bedevil our society and our schools. But if we are united in recognizing them, respectful in considering different remedies and both collaborative and inclusive in actively trying to solve our problems, then how can we fail?
Unfortunately, that “if” remains extraordinarily large in today’s toxic political climate. So it very well may fall to teachers, students, parents and administrators—and all people of character—to lead our nation out of this morass of selfishness and distrust. With Dr. King and Mr. Lincoln as our guides, perhaps this journey can be completed, after all.