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January 18, 2021

“I Have a Dream” Why Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Words Are So Important for 2021

Tom Sullivan

It would be prudent if all America would take pause today to carefully ponder a speech for the ages given by Martin Luther King, Jr. over 58 years ago. It was from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington that King blessed the world with his wisdom and inspiring call to create justice out of injustice, unity out of segregation, brotherhood out of division.

King was no hollow messenger. He sacrificed a relatively safe life pastoring a church by agreeing to bravely lead a noble movement that caused him much pain, humiliation, repudiations, attacks on his home, illegal jailings, and a near-life-ending knife attack. He put his life on the line every day for the cause of racial justice and equality. Five years after giving his speech in Washington, King paid the full price – losing his life in Memphis to the bullet of a racist assassin.

What King proclaimed so powerfully in 1963, is so painfully relevant now, as our newly-elected President prepares to take his oath of office to lead a country that finds itself in crisis. Over 400,000 Americans have died due to a pandemic that will likely take tens of thousands more. Nearly 11 million Americans are unemployed but “26.8 million workers—15.8% of the workforce—are either unemployed, otherwise out of work due to the pandemic, or employed but experiencing a drop in hours and pay” according to the Economic Policy Institute. And tens of thousands of small businesses, the engine of our economy, have permanently closed; many more are temporarily closed or have experienced revenue declines that will take years to recover.

Beyond the economy, fear, anger and frustration fester due to racial injustice and lack of equal opportunity. Extremist supporters of a defeated president refuse to accept the verdict of the election, have defiled our capital and threaten elected officials. In this state of affairs, we would do well to heed three themes in King’s speech.

The Urgency of Now – King proclaimed: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” Regarding democracy, Churchill observed: “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” We may have an imperfect democracy, but we also have elected leaders of both parties that we must hold accountable to advance the values and aspirations embedded in our constitution. We expect them to work together to make real the promises of democracy. There are signs of positive change as the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of congressional representatives committed to working together, has grown to 56 members including those who consider themselves very liberal or very conservative. We cannot advance together in unified priorities when political leaders define victory as capturing the headlines and soundbites that demonize the opposition. If our leaders pursue each other with hate and vindication, how will their followers act?

Our Tied Destiny – King also proclaimed: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” All citizens have a responsibility to recognize that we have the same rights to the same freedoms and privileges. We also have the same responsibilities that come with those rights. We have the responsibility to be informed, to be truthful, to be heard and to be respectful of others with different opinions. We have the responsibility to obey the law and the civic duty to protect the most vulnerable among us. We have to beware that actions and reactions, from extreme left to extreme right and back again, churn up a foaming swirl that also drowns the victims caught in the middle.

Freedom through Non-Violent Protest and Unified Struggle – King never wavered from his belief that justice and societal change are best advanced through peaceful means. His efforts resulted in many successes including The Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. People of all colors protested together to achieve this and other legislation that moved the rock of justice forward. “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering “I Have a Dream” at the 1963 Washington D.C. Civil Rights March. Courtesy @NationalArchives

America: It’s time to put aside foolish pride, the petri dish of hatred. It’s time to pray for our leaders and to build bridges of understanding, cooperation and love with our neighbors of different races, creeds, religions and political beliefs. It’s time to pray for each other, to truly listen and learn from each other, and to work self-sacrificially to make our nation the one that King envisioned. He had the dream, but we have the responsibility to bring it to life in these urgent days.

Tom Sullivan
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Tom Sullivan is an accomplished business leader and brand marketing professional who brings together business, government, and non-profit experience to accelerate growth and advance positive change. He has led brand transformations and go-to-market initiatives for Fortune 1000 companies, major banks and financial institutions, hospitals, government entities, universities, and start-ups. He has worked with over twenty community banks with assets from $500 million to $50 billion and is dedicated to advancing the growth and success of community banks and the communities they serve. Tom has also advanced innovative programs and expansion initiatives for many non-profits, including Special Olympics New Jersey, and First Lady, Michele Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America (Let’s Move Campaign).

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