Dr. King's 'I Have a Dream Speech' Turns 50 in 2013; Obama Inauguration on MLK Day

A half-century ago, it was a radical notion that a black man in America could have any kind of big dream at all. Yet on January 21, Martin Luther King Day, we will see the second term inauguration of America's first-ever black president. Talk about historical synergy.
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2013 is the year that Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech turns 50.

A half-century ago, it was a radical notion that a black man in America could have any kind of big dream at all, outside the realms of sports, music and entertainment.

Yet on Monday, January 21, 2013, which is Martin Luther King Day, we will see the second term inauguration of America's first-ever black president. Talk about historical synergy.

Toward the end of this speech, Dr. King envisioned an improbable goal, "to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."

Now, that's what I call a New Year's resolution.

2013: A Year of Landmark Civil Rights Anniversaries

In fact, this year there are several important civil rights anniversaries. 2013 marks, among others:
  • the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863).
  • 150th anniversary of the placement of the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome (1863).
  • 50th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech (1963).
  • 50th anniversary of the murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers and riots in Birmingham after the murder of four girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (1963).
  • the inauguration of the first black American president to his second term (2013).

And, as a reminder of the sometimes-terrible costs of change, 2013 is also the 50th anniversary of the assassination of another young president, JFK.

More Than Just History, the "I Have a Dream" Speech Still Resonates

Progressives may be less than thrilled with various policy compromises made by this administration. But the historicity of Obama's second inauguration cannot be denied. Juxtaposed with Dr. King's speech, Obama's presidency proves that in a democracy, progress can be made -- albeit achingly slowly, at great cost and, in the end, with greatly imperfect outcomes.

As we head into January policy battles -- over the unfinished business of the fiscal cliff, over legislation to be introduced by Sen. Feinstein on gun control and assault weapons, and other issues -- the narrative of Dr. King's too-short life is a reminder that when redressing a power imbalance, progress is not given; it must be won.

Standing in Washington, D.C. and addressing the largest civil rights demonstration this nation had ever seen, Dr. King said in his famous 1963 speech:

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

For Americans old enough to recall the civil rights era -- millions of baby boomers over age 50 or so -- this speech represents one of the iconic struggles of our nation in the second half of the 20th century. Among those watching President Obama forge a path in his second term are many who can personally bear witness to Dr. King's stature. For instance, Dr. King's friend and supporter Harry Belafonte, the singer-activist, will give a keynote address at this year's Brooklyn Academy of Music's 27th annual Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the largest such event in New York City.

2013 New Year's Resolution, Not About the Personal but About the Political

As a soundbite, the title of the "I Have a Dream" speech has passed into the vernacular of American language. We understand the shorthand of the title; it's a call to our better selves, for the dissolution of injustice.

But how many know that Dr. King, with a phraseology reminiscent of the biblical prophets, also said, "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism?" Or, "There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?'"

With a president who sometimes seems to need a caffeine jolt to his inner radical, the "I Have a Dream Speech" speech reads like an activists' wake up alarm. Tens of thousands of grassroots activists worked hard to win this president's reelection. With Obama's inauguration in a few weeks, can we revitalize the profound calling in Kings' speech to really tackle the struggles we face today -- a polarized Congress, a Tea Party-infused Republican right, high unemployment, a regressive attack on women's rights to our own bodies, a decades-long epidemic of gun violence in our inner cities, a fragmented healthcare system? In the second term of our first black presidency, can we not just honor Dr. King's words as history, but infect ourselves with his passion for creating the change we believe in?

Along with losing weight and exercising more, make a political New Year's resolution this year. But first, for inspiration and vision, read Dr. King's speech.

(Official text of the "I Have a Dream" speech can be found here.)

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