Dr. King’s words are still relevant today

The American Dream speech

Sunday, my husband Bernard and I attended a service titled “I have a dream” at the Eno River Unitarian Church in Durham. It was a chance to sit and listen, really listen, to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and to the interpretation of those words by Reverend Xolani Kacela, Dr. Amassa Fauntleroy and others. Many people have read or listened to “I Have a Dream,” arguably one of the greatest pieces of oratory ever. I was less familiar with the “American Dream speech which Dr. King apparently gave in different versions and which was foundational for the more well-known oration. Dr. King had not intended to give the rousing “I Have a Dream” rendition when he spoke at the Washington Monument on a sweltering day in 1964 in front of more than 250,000 people. Reverend Kacela is too young to have attended that day, but he offered a vivid description of the crowd‘s restlessness. As the tension mounted, Mahalia Jackson leaned over to Dr. King and said “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”

The words in the “American Dream” speech are stunningly powerful and as relevant as when Dr. King gave the speech at Lincoln University on June 6, 1961. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” he said.

excerptFor those of us in public health, Dr. King’s words rang true:

As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people cannot expect to live more than twenty or thirty years, no man can be totally healthy, even if he just got a clean bill of health from the finest clinic in America.

And perhaps the most profound words of all:

I cannot be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

Those words are the rationale for all we do in public health at the most core level.

The “American Dream” is worth watching or reading. It’s a lot harder to locate than the more well-known speech. I both read it and watched the YouTube video Monday.

Dr. King’s speeches still are relevant. We were interconnected then and still are today. While the mortality data he quoted have improved somewhat, the inequities still exist. I suspect that if Dr. King were alive today, he’d have changed “men” to “men and women,” and he’d have added Muslims to other religions he names. When I read the speech, I add those missing words.

Dr. King’s words are a reminder that our democracy is a remarkable vision, and we need all Americans to be part of it and benefit from it. As we approach primary day in North Carolina (Tuesday, March 15), we also are reminded that recent political acts making it more challenging for North Carolinians to vote are an insult to the values Dr. King fought to preserve.

Barbara

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