As we walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7th, 1965, we knew that the road ahead was long and dangerous, as change never comes easy. But march on we did, knowing deep in our hearts that one day the murders of Jimmy Lee Jackson, James Reed, and Viola Liuzzo, and the bombing of churches would stir the conscience of our fellow Americans. As Martin often preached, the clarion call for justice must inevitably end the silence of good people; and only then will the promise President Lincoln made in 1863 to right the wrongs of slavery become "a promise kept."
As foot soldiers in a non-violent crusade, there was one battleground on which we knew we could win the war of bigotry, the one place where all American citizens were equal: the voting booth. As Martin said as we marched to Montgomery, "The longest step for society is that short sweet step to the ballot box."
Miraculously, 8 days later, President Johnson stood before a Joint Session of Congress and answered Martin's prayers. Noting that a 100 years was already too long to wait, he vowed to enforce President Lincoln's promise of one man one vote: "Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome." It was the only time I ever saw Martin weep.
We won the battle, but 50 years later we are losing the war. Voter participation in America ranks 138th of the 172 democracies throughout the world. Too many Americans can't get registered or are being turned away at the polls; too many have forgotten the battle we fought for and don't take advantage of that precious right. Our voting system is broken and everyone knows it. Now is the time to fix it once and for all.
So, President Obama, as you place your hand upon the bibles of both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., I pray that you will be inspired by the courage and conviction of these two great men who paid the ultimate price for the right to vote. I pray that you will listen carefully to the words of Lyndon B. Johnson which still echo throughout the Capitol, and be inspired by that courageous Southerner who sacrificed his political life for the sake of a greater good. I pray that you will feel the strength of Martin's voice as he stood at the Lincoln Memorial urging our nation to make good on a 100 year old "unfulfilled promise."
It is altogether fitting that as we celebrate Martin's birthday, you will be standing exactly where President Lincoln and Johnson were sworn into office. Indeed, you will be the first president to take the oath under Martin's watchful gaze from the new MLK Memorial.
So may God be with you Mr. President and Mrs. Obama as you continue to fulfill my dear friend Martin's dream, a dream he shared with two of the greatest presidents in history, a dream that must be made an enduring reality once and for all.
First published at Why Tuesday?
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