In 1963, I was witness to history when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. set aside his prepared remarks on a sweltering August day to share with us his dream, a dream which we all share. At the time, I was just one in a sea of over 200,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to rally for civil rights and voting legislation.
As a senior and president of our student body at Tennessee State University, the event represented the culmination of three years of organizing fellow students and the greater community in Nashville. And, like many present, I had no idea that it would mark a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement or that King's words would become part of the American canon. Just a year later, after decades of sustained struggle, the Civil Rights Act was signed officially into law by President Johnson.
Fifty years later, I had the opportunity to witness history again, as thousands of Americans from all backgrounds gathered to celebrate our progress, and recommit ourselves to the ideals of the movement. This week, our nation has once again been captivated by Dr. King's dream.
But the dream is sometimes misunderstood. It is not just about the right to vote or an end to legal discrimination. It is about fulfilling the promise of a land of opportunity and leaving a proud legacy for our children. Though citizens of our country may not be relegated to the backs of buses or denied the ballot, there remains much to do in achieving the dignity of all.
Today, we are faced with a new civil rights issue. Even seven years ago, I never could have conceived of becoming a champion for climate change. As a pastor, it seemed trivial to prioritize polar bears in a world plagued by poverty, violence, drugs, and broken families. But, I have had a change of heart.
Climate change is a civil rights issue. We are seeing its impacts in our own communities in the form of record-breaking temperatures, floods, droughts, hurricanes, and the list goes on and on. When your children suffer from asthma and cannot go outside to play, as is the case for many in Atlanta, it is a civil rights issue. When unprecedented weather disasters devastate the poorest neighborhoods in places like New Orleans, New Jersey, and New York, it is a civil rights issue. When farmers in faraway lands cannot feed their families because the rains will no longer come, it is a civil rights issue.
I do not doubt that we will succeed in addressing climate change. After all, we have only scratched the surface when it comes to solutions such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, and preparedness. But our success rests on the willingness of all of us -- all races, creeds, and walks of life -- coming together with a single purpose.
In the Civil Rights Movement we marched hand in hand facing dogs and fire hoses, risking imprisonment and worse for the sake of future generations. The same question is in front of us today when it comes to climate change. What are you willing to sacrifice and what are you willing to personally do to hand down a better world to our children?
Reverend Dr. Gerald L. Durley is Pastor Emeritus of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA and attended the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. He was in Washington, DC to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event on Wednesday of this week.