Today Americans cast their minds back to reconsider the electrifying and inspiring words of a great man of God and peace. Although Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement to which he dedicated and ultimately sacrificed his life polarized the American people of his day as at no time since the Civil War, Americans today almost universally admire both the man and the principles for which he stood – principles he most famously voiced at the Lincoln Memorial fifty years ago.
I was just shy of ten years old on the day of Dr. King’s speech, and as a privileged white child living in California, quite blissfully ignorant of the struggles taking place to bring American society up to the splendid ideals expressed in her Constitution and Declaration of Independence. As I consider the effects of the 1960s on me personally, I can sum them up succinctly as the loss of my childish innocence. The decade started so idealistically with our President calling on Americans to ask themselves what they could do for their country. The great civil rights movement led by Dr. King and so many others who dedicated their lives to the cause of righteous justice reached its climax in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. As the decade was drawing to a close, the world witnessed the triumph of human achievement embodied in Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap” onto the surface of the moon. Yet this time which started so hopefully ended with thousands of America’s youth killed in jungles far from home, and three of America’s most inspirational and idealistic political leaders, including Dr. King himself, dead at the hands of assassins. As I was losing my innocence and growing into manhood, America lost its idealism, and began its decline into the decadence and debauchery in which we find her today.
What happened? Was the youthful idealism with which the decade started just starry-eyed naiveté in the midst of brutal reality? How did Dr. King’s beautiful dream of unity turn into today’s nightmare of greed, self-centeredness, polarization, and decadence? I believe that the key to answering these questions is that the 1960s decade was also the time that America – one nation under God – collectively turned its back on God. In 1963 (the very year of Dr. King’s speech) the US Supreme Court ruled that prayer in public schools violated the US Constitution’s First Amendment and was therefore outlawed. By the end of the year, the young, idealistic President Kennedy lay dead from an assassin’s bullet. The following summer seven American cities were swept with the fires of race riots which continued to erupt throughout the country for the following five years in a row. As the country descended into chaos, the cover of Time Magazine on April 8th, 1966 asked somewhat understandably, “Is God Dead?” Ironically, when Dr. King himself was killed, in 1968, riots broke out immediately all over the country which would certainly have broken the heart of this man of God and peace so outspokenly dedicated to non-violent activism.
Dr. King was, first and foremost, a man of God. In his Washington speech, he referred to humanity three times as “God’s children,” and of course the speech ends with the immortal “Great God Almighty – I’m free at last.” Yet, if the march on Washington were to take place in today’s America, it’s easy to imagine that some atheist organization might well have won a court injunction against Dr. King’s speech for invoking the name of God on federal property in clear violation of the sacred cow of “separation of church and state.” The speech and the impeccably non-violent protest movement spearheaded by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference may certainly have galvanized the federal government into the creation of many measures designed to usher in the dream which Dr. King shared with us so eloquently, but the American people also certainly failed to grasp the admonition to Godly righteousness and justice that lay at the heart of Dr. King’s message.