18 Letters

Today, January 18th is the day … in 2021. A Monday. A day set aside to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. M.L.K, for short. A man with 18 letters, side by side, forming his name. In his death, asking us to stand side by side in a dream against the backdrop of “withering injustice” and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years prior. 18 letters on the 18th day. Wonderful.

“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.”, Dr. King spoke on August 28, 1963 before an estimated 250,000 people at our nation’s capital.

Shameful as it is, I’ve never read his speech in its entirety. The soundbites provided by a well-rounded education and occasional nod throughout my adult life during the third Monday in January over the years have been my limited exposure. As I read his speech earlier today, there’s was phrase in the eighth paragraph that fully developed my attention: ” … remind America of the fierce urgency of now“. Maybe recent events – like January 6th on those very steps where Dr. King stood – have my antenna up higher. Possibly the struggles this past summer over George Floyd’s unfortunate death have my brain thinking differently? Whatever the cause, the effect was an increased urgency to read his words carefully and with purpose … especially that phrase.

It came after his statement above – the promise to all mankind … and the default of same. A default-default, in a sense, because he goes on to say the system wasn’t broken. Opportunity for freedom and the security of justice still remained. He saw a path toward justice for all people … ALL people … at his now. 1963. I was taken aback by this. In context, his words at this point are better understood, for me, than five soundbites for an eighth grade pop quiz before lunch period. Imagine being one of 250,000. Listening to “… 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...” as you stood with your friends. So powerful, it must have been.

The next few paragraphs, although only 10 lines, express a heartfelt desire for peace in pursuit of reform. His respect for authority and the brotherhood of blacks and whites“as evidenced by their presence here today” – should be emphasized by all teachers wanting to provide their students a fair and accurate representation of Dr. King’s remarks. He wanted, in his words, “dignity and discipline” in pursuit of “their destiny (which is) is tied up with our destiny.”

Six injustices follow: Police brutality, inequity in travel/lodging, housing, “whites only” discrimination, voting, and justice reform. Summarizing, he vindicatingly remarks, “You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”. Never up to this point in the speech did he urge the individuals to violently protest the injustices that were certainly tearing apart their lives and communities. His words, carefully crafted, soothed rough edges of concern and distress. Restless, weary kin had enough and were tired. They marched for change. In the midst of fatigue, they stood and listened. Eyes half open. Exhaustion pulled heavy on their souls. Then it happened.

Then … Dr. King entered into their slumber. He had a vision. The sun broke free, people on that day tilted their heads upward, generations to come read words in history books, and the third Monday in January celebrates an 18 letter name:

“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that 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. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

Less than 5 years later, he was gone. On April 4th, 1968 he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. We know the story. A righteous man who never condoned violence died because of it. That isn’t an original observation, of course. I highly doubt that phrase wasn’t used days after the assassination. It’s just so appropriate, however. It rings true – as does this selection from his final remarks on that day in August of 1963:

“And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And 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 Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous 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 mountainside, let freedom ring.”

Allow me to finish with my own 18 letters: Today, read his speech.

… And, also give the final say, but never good-bye, to Dr. King himself: ” … 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.”

Wonderful. Simply, Wonderful.