Twenty years ago, I had the distinct privilege of co-chairing the organizing committee for the interfaith worship service for the thirtieth anniversary commemoration. We struggled to find the right keynote speaker, and landed on having Andrew Young and Eleanor Holmes Norton as the speakers for it.
It was a very hot day. Delegate Norton was struggling to find her notes for speaking, and I tried to help, saying something stupid like, "Just speak from your heart." She eventually found her notes and spoke them from her heart. A noisy disturbance almost derailed the service at one point, and as I stepped down from the podium at the Sylvan theater to try to calm things down, Andrew Young accompanied me, and with grace, dignity and power I have seldom seen before, this former deputy of Martin Luther King, former Ambassador to the United Nations, and mayor of Atlanta immediately calmed the group that was making the ruckus.
I went into the role of co-chairing the event thinking that I could change the world. What I learned from Andrew Young that day is that the change of the world happens at an individual level, as he lovingly calmed down a relatively minor disturbance and an obscure event.
No, I don't remember at all what was said that day, but I remember being arm-in-arm with my brothers and sisters singing, "We shall overcome".
So, yes, I will miss this today.
I often reflect on what Dr. King said fifty years ago today, how he said it, and what happened. In listening to his speech, the first part of it was elegant and erudite. A promissory note not paid, language that effectively expressed the evils of racial segregation and then-current public policy. It was a masterful speech, but it wasn't resonating. At one point, Dr. King looked up, and abandoning his notes, began to express a dream for the world, based in the American dream. Sure, the material came from many of his stump speeches -- perhaps everything he said from that point on was former material.
But this was no ordinary day. This was the day when the words expressed before would come together into a marvellous symphony of spiritual connectedness. It was no longer just about equality for the negro, but expressed a dream where a diverse people of can come together and be free at last.
Now, fifty years later, are we free at last? Sure, laws have changed, such freedom doesn't happen just because laws change, but rather, there needs to be a mighty change of heart. To say we are done with the progress made on that day is overlook the fact that we, as a country and world, are more divided than ever at a personal level. In America, a very small minority of people with immense wealth and power are effectively dismantling the laws that put us on the track of equality and justice. The difference between the wealthy 1% and the majority is greater than it ever has been. Founding principles that assure freedom, such as the separation of church and state and the right of privacy are being dismantled in the very name of 'freedom'.
We have not overcome.
We have not overcome, but we can, if we embraced the dream, and make that dream a reality. No-one else will make this happen for us, for me. I need to stand today, and wherever I am, to march on Washington and demand that we create the dream for which Dr. King died. We must overcome our differences and work together. We must overcome our deeply-held biases and learn of each other. We must overcome our personal desire for wealth and work for a greater good. We must overcome by setting aside our religious differences and embrace the oneness that makes us human.
So today, this 28th of August, 2013, I will read again and listen to Dr. King's speech. But I need to do more than that. I cannot change the world, or even, perhaps, anyone else, but I need to see where my individual choices limit this dream. I need to commit to making that dream a reality, if only in my individual dealings with others. That, I can do. That, I must do.
I ... can overcome.