The Common Good

The Legacy of Martin Luther King: Coming Close Enough to Measure Character

[Editor's Note: In anticipation of the anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, God's Politics will feature a series of posts on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Continue to check the blog for more reflections each day this week.]

King's references to our children are among the most misused and misunderstood elements of the "I Have a Dream" speech. And as I reflect even further on this speech/sermon/love song/jeremiad, and on the many unkind cuts it suffers -- as well as the enlivening challenges it presents to us all -- I remember that my friend, Martin, was only 34 years old when he delivered it on behalf of millions of others. And I recall (we were, with our wives and children, Atlanta-based neighbors and co-workers at the time) that in 1963 he and Coretta had only recently experienced the joy of the birth of their fourth child. Following those memories, I knew how important children were to him, how much he regretted his constant absences from the lives of his own beautiful gang. So it is also clear to me that the two major references to children in the speech were not meant to be sentimental throw-away lines. Rather, they deserve to be taken (and to be taught) seriously.

As King tried to share the heart of his dream with the gathering in Washington and the millions watching on television (and the countless numbers watching from wherever our ancestors reside), it was natural that he should turn to his children -- and all of our children -- to clarify his meaning. First, he said, "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."

That, of course, has become a favorite statement cherry-picked from the speech, often by persons who seek to avoid acknowledging and dealing with the continuing destructive power of racism in our nation and, therefore, who may have missed "the impact and influence" and deep meaning of King's statement. With that dangerous, light-weighting process in mind, I have lately asked myself and others, how do we really measure the content of a child's character? How do we measure (I like that word better than "judge") anyone's character, including our own? Can we do it without intentionally opening ourselves to each other, without coming close to each other, without sharing one another's stories, aspirations, hopes, and fears?

Indeed, can we really measure the content of our own individual character without regularly practicing deep levels of honest self-reflection? In other words, it seems clear to me that King's dream was offering us no easy way forward, either with our children or ourselves. To explore fully the content of our characters surely requires our best thinking and working, to open that necessary pathway into each other's lives. To place nurturing, loving hands on the lives of our children.

Vincent G. Harding, professor emeritus at Iliff School of Theology and co-founder of Veterans of Hope Project, is a historian, author, and activist.

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