In his most famous speech, on the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation that ended legalized slavery in the U.S., the activist, pastor and theologian Martin Luther King Jr. expressed a prophetic dream. He dreamed that his children would one day live in a world where justice would indeed be reality for all.
King described his dream of lived-out, self-evident human equality as "deeply rooted in the American dream" and drawn from his faith in the hopes of the Hebrew prophets Amos and Isaiah that justice will one day roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream, that the valleys will be raised and the mountains made low so that all people together will see God's glory revealed. Specifically, he spoke as the father of two daughters -- then eight years old and newborn -- and two sons, then six and two years old.
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.
He dreamed further that even in the heart of the nation's most segregated and violent segregated state, "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."
Twenty years after King proclaimed his dream in 1963, then-President Ronald Reagan signed into law the federal observance of King's birthday as an annual holiday. Since 2000, King's birthday has been celebrated as a legal holiday in all 50 states. My own children, like most who attend public schools in this country, learn most about the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. each January as their teachers help them understand the historical context for the upcoming Monday vacation they will have from school. Like King at the time he spoke of this dream to us, I too have a 6-year-old child and dream of equality for all people, rooted both in my understanding of the U.S. Constitution and my hopeful faith in the promises of a God who created all people equal. My own 6-year-old child in many ways lives in King's dreamed-for America today, about 50 years after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and ensuing passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. The only U.S. president she has ever known is African-American (elected when she was only two). She also lives with a gay transgender parent, has only ever attended an LGBTQ -affirming church, and joyously celebrates holidays and near weekly Sabbath candlelit prayer, dinner and game nights at our house with LGBTQ students who have become our adopted extended family. She lives in a country where in just the past year, the Supreme Court overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, the U.S. Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and many protections for transgender people have begun to be introduced for the first time. Like many allies and members of the LGBTQ community, and like King himself during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, however, I sometimes become discouraged by the setbacks and slowness of our progress. I often carry with me, visible to others, a copy of King's 1964 Why We Can't Wait as a constant reminder of the urgency of the work for equality.
But King's dream has in so many unexpected ways already come true. He and I both have children who already live in a different America than the one we did. My 6-year-old yesterday explained to me that she knew she had a day off from school this coming Monday, and that she knew it was Martin Luther King Day. Without being asked, she explained, "He made it so a black man and a white man can get married in America today." When my eyes widened and jaw dropped, as I was uncharacteristically speechless, she explained further as though to a very naïve young child, "You know black people and white people couldn't get married to each other back in those days. He fixed it." I did not correct her. One day when she is no longer just a first-grader, we will talk about the fullness of King's real legacy. But in the meantime, my eyes fill with tears and my heart swells with joy and gratitude that to this young child, homophobia is unimaginable. In her church, in her family, in her little world, marriage equality has always been. It's unquestionable. It's more than I even dared to dream.
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