Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the stage as the closing speaker at the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs. In front of almost a quarter million fellow Americans, he began:
"I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."
Indeed, it did. Dr. King went on to talk about the "bad check" given by America to its black citizens and his refusal to believe the "bank of justice is bankrupt." He spoke directly to the attendees and civil rights activists across the nation, denouncing violence by telling them, "We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline." Then, of course, he delivered some of his most memorable lines about his idealistic dream and his desire for freedom to truly ring from every city and state in our nation.
The march in general and Dr. King's speech in particular were radical. These overtures toward freedom for all scared entrenched interests across the nation. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Birmingham campaign, to the March on Washington and Chicago Open Housing Movement, Dr. King's vocal and effective advocacy not only riled up the racists but unsettled the establishment.
Following his speech in Washington, D.C., the Federal Bureau of Investigation set out to undermine his credibility as a leader through round-the-clock surveillance, calling him "the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country." They attempted to link Dr. King to communism and accused him of conspiring with communists against the interests of America. To that end, he stated, "the Negro revolution is a genuine revolution, born from the same womb that produces all massive social upheavals - the womb of intolerable conditions and unendurable situations."
Fifty years ago, Dr. King's views were radical. Prohibition of discrimination in the workplace and in housing, equal rights, protection from violence, safety in the workplace, and wages that one can support him or herself on were unheard of demands at the time. Today, they sound quite reasonable. Sadly, though, despite a greatly improved condition for American citizens today, we are not living up to even these basic ideals.
Today's minimum wage is dangerously low and not suitable for an individual to live on, let alone to support a family. Workplace safety and labor rights are being attacked and rolled back across the country, especially in Michigan. Our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQI community face discrimination in many important aspects of their lives. Women are paid less than men across the board.
I was born ten years after Dr. King's historic speech and just five years after he was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, but his life's work has always been inspiration for me. Today let us celebrate the memory of Dr. King and his timeless words, recognize the progress made and honor those upon whose shoulders we stand. Then, we can rededicate ourselves to continuing the work we are called to do on behalf of our brothers and sisters of every persuasion and from all walks of life.