Today and Tomorrow, Remember MLK

The sole purpose of this post is to encourage everyone to watch Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, available on youtube.  Read the rest of the post if you like, but make sure you watch the speech.

It is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day once again, and many people have a day off from school or work.  2009 is a particularly interesting year for MLK day, as it will be followed immediately by the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president.

Back at my high school, if the tradition still stands, they will not be taking the day off.  They will be going to all their regular classes, each one shortened by 25%-30% so that there will be time at the end of the day for an all-school meeting in honor of the holiday.  Most of you can probably picture this scene: there will be somber speeches by students and faculty, all very earnest and much of it quite overblown.  Every year, at least one student will make their speech too self-aggrandizing under the cover of self-discovery, and the school will listen in polite, embarrassed silence.  Every year, at least one student will surprise the school with a selfless and heartfelt message about unity and community.  In a small school, such simple messages go a long way.

No matter how immature or unskilled the orators are, these meetings are always heartfelt and well-intentioned, and that alone makes them both meaningful and powerful.  I am a little disappointed that today I have no similar service to attend.  However, there is one tradition from my high school’s MLK Day assembly that I looked forward to every year, one which I can easily recreate at college.

Every year, towards the end of the assembly, the lights were dimmed for a screening of the full eighteen minutes of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963.  Eighteen minutes is long, especially for a high school freshman, but from the very first time I saw it, I was deeply impressed.  By the time I was a junior, I was old enough to pay rapt attention from beginning to end.  It blew me away.

King makes no pretence at a sophisticated discussion of the various issues facing the nation and the Civil Rights movement.  His speech is not that of a Harvard sociology professor providing nuanced plans for a mass reduction in racism and the upward mobility of an oppressed minority.

King’s speech is nothing more or less than hope, passion, and non-violence.  It is an expression both of the anger felt in the African-American community and of the deep commitment to overcoming injustice without succumbing to that anger.  It is a deeply American speech, and every year it knocked me out.

So, on this day honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., I encourage everyone to watch the speech.  Find yourself eighteen minutes of uninterrupted quiet and watch it on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbUtL_0vAJk .  It is a powerful representation of why we remember the man and celebrate the day.  It is also, if you listen closely, a reminder of the work left to be done.  Fortunately, King believes it can be done, and watching his speech, it is easy to agree.

Tomorrow, as the nation pats itself on the back for a job well done last November 4th, we should perhaps remember that the historic election of Barack Obama is not the end of the road, and his inauguration is a victory for only a day.  After tomorrow, there are four years in which each day is more important than the pomp and circumstance of tomorrow’s ceremony.

I will be watching the inauguration live tomorrow, but for me, the eighteen minute speech which I watch today, recorded in black and white from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963, is equally important.

Allan

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