Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King

King speaking at the Washington Memorial at the March on Washington.
The March on Washington: More than 250,000 fighting for equality.

“I have a dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King told more than 250,000 people on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963. “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.”

“And when this happens and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

I stood in that crowd that afternoon after getting up before dawn to drive up from Willis, VA, to Washington in my just-purchased 1957 Ford. The drive took more than seven hours. Interstate 81 was just pieces of a planned road back then. I took U.S. 460 East out of Roanoke and then U,S, 29 out of Lynchburg — a winding two-land road — through Charlottesville and Northern Virginia to reach Washington.

With two cameras — a battered and used Yashica Mat twin-lens I owned reflex and a borrowed 35mm with a 200mm telephoto lens, I tried to capture the images of what I thought could be a historic day in our nation’s history.

King speaking at the Washington Memorial at the March on Washington.

I took about a half-dozen photos of King speaking, then left the cameras hanging around my neck and listened to his words. To a 15-year-old boy out of the mountains of Southwester Virginia, King’s speech was captivating.

“Tell ’em about the dream,” shouted Mahalia Jackson. With eloquence, he did and much more.

“Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

“This will be the clay when all of God’s children will be nble to sing with new meaning. “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’ s pride, from every mountain side, let. freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rookies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the cavernous slopes of California.

But not only that. Let freedom ring from Stone Moun­tain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Moun­tain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountain side. Let freedom ring.”

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sing at the March on Washington in 1963.

With those words ringing in my ears, I walked more than a mile back to my car parked on a side street off Pennsylvania Avenue and fought traffic for more than a hour before heading southwest back towards home.

As an elementary school student in Farmville, I saw racial hatred and bigotry up close when the Prince Edward School Board and Board of Supervisors shut down the public school system to illegally avoid court-ordered integration and opened an all-white private school.

I didn’t understand such hate then and I don’t understand those who want to close our borders to those who seek a better life in a country created by other immigrants who fled persecution more than 200 years ago.

On April 4, 1968, the Associated Press wire machine began clanging — a notice of important breaking news — in a section of the newsroom of The Roanoke Times, where I worked as a reporter. The wire flash reported Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis. I spent the rest of the night covering protests along Orange Avenue in Roanoke.

Nine months later, I took a reporting job at The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois, birthplace of James Earl Ray, the man convicted of assassinating King. I looked up his birth certificate. It said he was born in a house in the city. I knocked on the door and found a black family live there. They were shocked when I told them their house was where the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King was born.

I wrote about that irony and someone set fire to the home. Was it a result of racism? No one ever took credit for the burning and no one was charged.

Martin Luther King died trying to eradicate racism in America.

Did racism in America outlive him?

A poll for NBC News, released last year, says 64 percent of Americans say “racism remains a major problem in American society and politics” while 30 percent say it still exists but isn’t a major problem.”

The poll reports:

Pluralities of Americans said race relations in the United States are getting worse (45 percent) and think that too little attention is paid to race and racial issues (41 percent).

Jonah Goldberg, writing for American Enterprise Institute, disagrees:

When I hear people say things about America — it’s racist, it’s sexist, etc. — or when I hear them say that America is the most this or the most that, I always want to ask, “Compared to whom?”

By no plausible objective standard is America the most racist or bigoted country in the world, even just among industrialized countries. On a 2014 list of countries ranked by opposition to having a racially different neighbor, America ranked 47th (with 6 percent of the population saying they were opposed). In raw numbers, we admit more immigrants than any other country. And as Amy Chua notes in her new book Political Tribes, “No other major power in the world has ever democratically elected a racial minority head of state.”

Dr. Martin Luther King is dead but the debate lives on. For many of us, we celebrate his birthday Monday with a renewed commitment to continue his battle for equality.

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