My son started his final year of high school this week. Watching Barack Obama's acceptance speech last night with him reminded me of something we did during his first year of school, and of something that has stuck with since then.
We were living a small town, alongside the kind of "real, heartland Americans" ones hears a lot about during elections. Sending your first child to school gives you a whole set of memories, but I especially remember the first Martin Luther King, Jr. day.
For a small community, we had considerable economic and social diversity, so while Chris's arrived already able to read, many of his classmates were mostly unprepared for a formal classroom. Some had evidently never even held a book in their hands before September.
However, when it came time for the teacher to talk about MLK, many of the kids knew exactly what to do. My wife was helping in the classroom that day, and was just shocked when a wave of racist comments came pouring out of a majority of the kids. Imagine that - kids who had likely never met a black person, who arrived at school unable even to name all of their body parts, somehow knew that King was a "dirty nigger".
I was tempted to abandon my commitment to non-violence so I could go bitch slap some of my fellow parents, but instead I downloaded King's "I Have Dream Speech" and went over it with my son. I'm not sure how much of it Chris got, he was (and is) a precocious reader, but he was only six at the time.
There is a phrase King used at the beginning of the speech, that America's promise was a bounced check. That phrase was powerful at the time and it was still with me last night. Here's the passage...
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.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.
Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.Listening to Obama's stirring speech, coming from our first black Presidential candidate and maybe, (likely?), first black President, I felt like we were moving from sand to solid rock.
And I'd like to think that last night, the check finally cleared.