By Mark Hyatt
President & CEO
This Aug. 28 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech—or as we like to refer to it at CEP, his “Content of Character” speech.
From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, addressing more than 250,000 civil rights supporters who had gathered in 1963 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. King reportedly had not intended to list examples of his “dream.” But after his first reference, Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, standing nearby, is said to have cried, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
So he did, straying from his prepared remarks to etch these words into American history: 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 view the entire speech, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smEqnnklfYs)
Last month, President Obama invoked those very words, when speaking in the aftermath of the controversial George Zimmerman verdict. Calling for calm and reflection, he suggested that we all need to ask ourselves, “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?”
I agree. It is an excellent question to ask whenever we find ourselves forming an opinion that we fear may be based on some form of stereotype, be it race, religion, gender, class, you name it. Like many of you, no doubt, I’m just saddened that the question is as relevant today as it was half a century ago.
But take heart.
After all, this is our calling. All of you, and all of us here at CEP, are still engaged in this noble, multi-generational struggle to teach children tolerance, love, empathy, compassion, honor, courage, sacrifice and selflessness—in short, to help form the actual “contents” of their character.
Can any of you think of a job that is more important? I know I can’t.
So, despite disturbing headlines in the news this summer and all the setbacks that remind us daily of how much work still needs to be done, I still cannot wait for the new school year to begin. Why?
Because that is the time when all of us can get back to our day jobs of making a real difference again. And isn’t that why we are all here? After all, no one in their right mind goes into education to get rich.
So I hope all of you have had the opportunity to rest and re-energize this summer, to reignite the fire that drew you into education in the first place. I have been at this myself for quite awhile now, but as Labor Day nears, I invariably find myself getting excited, even antsy, about rejoining the mission before us.
In fact, I am reminded how last fall (as I noted in an earlier essay), Peter Yarrow of the legendary folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, performed at our annual Forum in Washington, D.C. He told us then how his trio had actually been the opening act ahead of Dr. King’s speech in 1963. As the civil rights leader proceeded to mesmerize the sea of humanity before them, standing off to the side, Peter recalled how Mary squeezed his hand and said, “We’re part of history now.”
As all of us now prepare to meet new students, parents and colleagues, I hope you may feel that same sense of anticipation mixed with responsibility. Granted, huge challenges remain today and no one ever said it would be easy. But unlike many workplaces, our schools actually have the power to shape history. Schools of character create students of character who grow into citizens of character.
“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Dr. King.
At CEP, our mission is to help all of you to bend that arc. Working together, I have faith that we can all bring his dream closer to reality.