Depending on what story you want to believe, I was either named for the bird Martin (likely a purple one) or for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There’s also the more Jewish name origin, in that I may have been named for a female relative whose name was Matilda (or something close to that).
I’ve always liked the idea that I was named for Dr. King. I was born on March 28, 1965, 19 months to the day after he delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.
Wednesday will mark the 50th anniversary of that speech. It is a speech that always resonates with me. Despite the fact that I am white, I was also born a Jew (although I have not been in a synagogue in many years, I still consider myself Jewish culturally). I have lived in countries and even parts of the U.S. where I have been in the minority (Kabul, Afghanistan; Guadalajara, Mexico; Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands). I have been -- thankfully not often -- on the receiving end of prejudice and, at least, misunderstanding.
Of all places, I read about the story behind the speech online from The Guardian, the British newspaper. While other papers -- including The Washington Post -- focused on remembrances, book author Gary Younge decided to look at the crafting of the speech, the decisions that went into it ... and how it wasn’t the speech King’s closest advisors expected him to give.
In fact, it wasn’t supposed to be the “I Have a Dream” speech at all.
According to the article, adapted from Younge’s book, “The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King’s Dream,” King advisor Wyatt Walker noted that the Civil Rights leader had already used the speech “too many times” in other places.
I never knew that. I’ve always assumed “I Have a Dream” was given for the first time during the march in August 1963. It turns out he had given versions of the speech in Chicago (just a week earlier) and Detroit (a few months before that), according to Younge.
So, with help from Clarence Jones, who had written the first draft, King penned the speech the night before, staying up until 4 a.m., Younge wrote. He would be 16th among all the speakers slated to exhort a crowd that swelled to about 250,000.
King talked about the Emancipation Proclamation, signed “five score” (100 years) earlier and that “colored Americans” still were not truly free ... that “all men, yes, black men as well as white men” were guaranteed the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but that such things had been denied.
King said that “we” ... and I’d like to think he meant all Americans ... couldn’t be satisfied as long as “a colored person in Mississippi cannot vote” and one in “New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
He charged those in attendance to “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana...”
At that point, according to Younge, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson cried out, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” King finished his sentence and she repeated the cry: “Tell ‘em about the dream.”
King put aside his prepared text and extemporaneously continued, saying “...we have the difficulties of today and tomorrow. I still have a dream.” Walker, according to Younge, used an expletive and said, “He’s using the dream.”
And so he did, and -- as Jones would later write -- he “stepped down on the other side of history.”
From there, those of you who are old enough likely remember the words; those of us who are not, but have followed our own history have read or heard them.
For those who have not, King had a dream that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood ... 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 their character ... that little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers ... when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning ‘My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring’ ... 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 spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”
Religious or not, those were and continue to be powerful words. In many ways, they have defined parts of my life, including my decision to adopt my sons, who are wholly or partially black. I look upon and love them as I would any child of mine ... there is no thought to it, just the emotion and filial bond of fathers and sons.
I have no doubt that America has come a long way since August 28, 1963. I also have no doubt that it still has a long way to go. America is not perfect, and may never be, but that should not preclude the striving to be so.
Bells across Camden, Kershaw County, South Carolina and the nation will be ringing at 3 p.m. Wednesday to mark the occasion of King’s speech.
I hope you’ll stop and listen and remember that King’s dream is our dream: a dream of a day when all men, women and children are truly treated equally in America ... where we celebrate rather than fear our differences without any exception whatsoever.