By Tom Ehrich
On August 28, 1963, I was preparing my farewell to childhood and my train trip to college and adulthood. As far as I knew, the whole world was wide open to me.
I doubt that I even noticed the civil rights march in Washington or the “I have a dream” speech that Martin Luther King Jr. gave that day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
I wasn’t opposed to those events. I was simply clueless about their meaning. It would be years before I saw that I had indeed judged my high school classmates on the color of their skin, not on the “content of their character,” as King dreamed.
It would be years before I understood that if one race isn’t free, none of us is free. And years more before I comprehended the persistent injustices that arise in a land motivated more by greed than by grace. And years more before I understood why King had quoted Scripture – not for dramatic effect, but as a holy reminder to people of faith that faith is about justice, or it is about nothing at all.
I heard King’s speech for the first time in 1993 while visiting the US Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, housed in the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated. I was with a clergy leadership group, but happened to be by myself when I came upon the 17-minute speech showing in a corridor.
I wept uncontrollably, as years of not seeing and not knowing fell away, along with years of experiencing injustice but not naming it, and years of feeling my nation be cheapened and sullied by the darkness of oppression.
King’s dream turned a lens for me. It was about racial justice, but even more it was about freedom. I saw that the oppressive forces of power, wealth, control and conformity give no free passes, even to privileged white males. The judging and hating and diminishing that have flowed freely toward people of color eventually drown us all.
“Free at last!” is the victory shout for every one of us.