Fifty years ago today, a variety of Americans gathered at the Mall in Washington. There had been fears of violence. All the police were ready. But peace prevailed.
The day has become famous for Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. It's a speech that stands up well.
When I first started teaching college English classes (25 years ago--gulp!), we had students write a variety of argumentative essays. We had them read widely from the genre, both the classics and the op-ed pages. We had them think outside the genre, looking for arguments everywhere.
Were students impressed with King's speech? Some were, some weren't. Some saw it as too long. Some liked it better when they heard it, which led to valuable discussions about oral arguments and written arguments.
We had great discussions about the dreams we might have for the nation's future. I was only a few years older than the students, who were mostly 18 and 19, fresh out of high school. When Dr. King delivered his speech, he was only a few years older than we were then.
If I taught the speech now, I'd point out that it takes people articulating these kinds of visions to begin to bring them to reality. I'd point out that King's dreams would have seemed very unlikely to his audience. People would have thought them impossible. Even today, we've had plenty of voices pointing out that we've still not quite arrived at the fullness of his vision.
It's important to remember that we've come much closer than we would have if we hadn't had people like King calling us to a better future.
And it's important to remember how much progress was made in a very short amount of time, or what seemed a short amount of time.
It's crucial to remember that there were years, decades, of important work done before the rest of society caught up to the thinking of the Civil Rights movement- -much like the recent gains in gay rights.
We can't always know that progress is being made when we work for social justice. We proceed in faith, trusting that our work will not be done in vain. Perhaps that's true of any big project: books that we write, children that we raise, students that we educate, long-term relationships of all kinds.
Today is a good day to take some time to envision a better future, for ourselves, for our children, for future generations who will marvel at what's been done. What dreams do we have? If we believed that anything was possible, what would we want to see?