Fifty years ago today the thousands upon thousands gathered to “March on Washington.” Today the president will give a speech to mark the anniversary. Fifty years ago the president waited nervously in the the White House. There had been official concern and privately expressed cautions that the event invited disaster even for the cause of civil rights. A riot in the capitol and the hopes of signing legislation into law would be blowin’ in the wind.
But there was no rioting or violence. Instead the thousands gathered and sang and marched and came away with the glory of Martin Luther King’s speech calling for equality and freedom —singing of “that day” when all would be singing in the words of the spiritual—’free at last,free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.’ When it was over and done the leaders of the march found themselves being congratulated by a John Kennedy, sighing relief.
A lot of us will be talking today about King’s dream, whether it’s been realized or is even still relevant. Some will remind that the march was billed as a call for “Jobs and Freedom” and that King died with Civil Rights legislation signed but still waging his campaign for the poor —calling for full guaranteed employment. Has the dream been accomplished, denied, deferred, derailed? This question has become something of a trope. The answer is that there is always further to go.
What comes to mind for me is the notion King articulated as ‘Beloved Community’ —an expansive civil society premised upon love.
Sarah Vowel writing in the New York Times very beautifully described King’s “radical” notion of a loving nation:
Here’s what Dr. King got out of the Sermon on the Mount. On Nov. 17, 1957, in Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he concluded the learned discourse that came to be known as the “loving your enemies” sermon this way: “So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you: ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’ ”
Go ahead and re-read that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”