FOUR LITTLE words, "I have a dream," captured the imagination of the nation.
As we observe today the birth 74 years ago of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., many will hear again his "I Have a Dream" speech. This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington where he made that speech. Its power still resonates with anyone over 40. It is one of the greatest speeches ever recorded in American history.
I was 10 in 1963 and grew up in the segregated city of Annapolis. I remember the "Whites Only" signs. I remember the segregated public schools, restaurants, department stores and movie theaters. Those of us over 40 remember the humiliation of being denied entrance to public accommodations because of the color of our skin. We celebrated when Dr. King and the civil rights movement ended American apartheid.
Therefore, I can easily relate to the "I Have a Dream" speech. I am still moved by these words: "I have a dream 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 the content of their character."
But it's not 1963. And I have two sons, 25 and 17. I have often wondered what they and other young men and women thought about Dr. King's legacy. Do they recognize the great progress that has been made over the last four decades? What are their views of Dr. King's dream? Has his dream been replaced by a nightmare?
We have seen remarkable progress in 40 years. No one can deny that the notable appointment of Secretary of State Colin Powell or the election of Lt. Gov. Michael Steele are proof that there is a different America.
But all change is not always positive. My sons and other young people remind me of other events that have occurred over the last four decades that signal that Dr. King's dream has become scarred and tainted by a new reality. It is a fetid reality. He asked that we be judged by the "content of our character."
In the last few decades, "our character" has become questionable. I recall the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 by African-American men. I don't know when it started, but I have seen a disturbing pattern developing. Somewhere along the way, we surrendered the moral high ground.
There was a time in the African-American community when there was some conduct that was not permissible. We as a community would not tolerate certain kinds of behavior. That has changed, and not for the good. Like many Marylanders, I was flabbergasted to learn that an African-American youth had allegedly firebombed the Baltimore home of an African-American family, killing nearly that entire family.
The recent apprehension of the alleged Washington-area snipers who are black was not only shocking but further indicates that Dr. King's dream is being deferred. These snipers allegedly shot men, women and children without regard to race. Something has gone terribly wrong.
Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, and since then we are reminded how far the nation has drifted from the hope that he inspired in millions of people. Many have forgotten that Dr. King's mother also was felled by an assassin's bullet, in 1974. Her assassin was a young black man. The mother of the modern day civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, was assaulted in 1994 by a young black male.
There is a need today to ask new questions. There is a need to remind the nation of a new reality. Some whites may quickly conclude that I am blaming the American race problem on the African-American community. Black readers may conclude that I am allowing whites to escape the terrible injustices committed by this society. Both are wrong.
It is time to reflect on the meaning of Dr. King's legacy. On one hand, we must continue to struggle to make sure that America lives up to its promise of justice and equality for all. On the other, we must demand a new accountability in our community. Malcolm X and Dr. King did not give their lives for some of the insanity that is taking place in our community.
It is imperative that we begin judging the "content of our character." In 1963, the cry was "I have a dream." In 2003, it must be "the struggle continues" - for our nation and our moral compass to be rediscovered.
Carl O. Snowden is an intergovernmental relations officer for Anne Arundel County.