It is a day to reflect on the courageous leadership and powerful expression of this great American. Today, we pause to consider the deep national sin that it was to treat other human beings as property for much of our history. But even after the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, “Jim Crow” legal structures enslaved black Americans in all but name. It took and still takes courageous steps, large and small, to erode the stony edifice of racial prejudice. Among the most poignant to me were heroic actions of African-American soldiers, like the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment in World War I, and their children in World War II and the Korea War, and grandchildren in Vietnam, all despite ingrained segregation.
Success on the battlefield did not immediately translate to respect at home but it did inspire challenges to segregation. Despite violent opposition particularly in the south, the Civil Rights Movement under Rev. King’s leadership brought a level of eloquence and influence sufficient to convince President Kennedy to propose a civil rights law in 1963 to give force to the 14th and 15th Amendments. Segregationists blocked it in Congress and supporters proposed a demonstration that summer in Washington, D.C. to dislodge it. That was the occasion of Rev. King’s immortal “I have a Dream” speech. The next year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Five decades later, the white nationalist movement remains a small but persistent threat in America. This movement’s strategy to rebrand themselves as “freedom of speech” advocates -- to trade white robes and hoods for polo shirts and khaki trousers-- is well described by Christian Picciolini, a skin-head leader who found his way out of that empty ideology to establish the non-profit, Life after Hate (see Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead). Yet, there can be no equivocation about identifying such groups for what they are and in absolutely rejecting them.
In stark contrast to hate groups stands Rev. King’s shining ideal, so vividly articulated in the “I have a dream” speech. Today, we renew ourselves in the continuing pursuit of that ideal – a society where all Americans are “free at last.”
Yours in service,