Martin Luther King and the possibility of change

I have friends who don’t believe in change.

They insist that no matter how hard we try, no matter what we do, things won’t get better. They don’t believe Occupy Wall Street changed anything. They tell me the corporations have too much power, and nothing we do can ever make things right. They don’t believe we can overthrow the fossil fuel dinosaurs of oil and coal in order to move forward with renewable green energy. They don’t believe we can stop the bleeding in habitats across our country and across the globe; stop the bleeding and start the healing.

But I know that’s not true. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”

Barely three years ago, I saw a Black man take the oath of office – something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. Today, Barack Obama is running for his second term, and there are those who are too discouraged to bother helping reelect the most progressive, pro-environment President we’ve seen in our lifetime . “He hasn’t done enough,” , they say. “He’s not standing up to the corporations, to big oil, to the polluters.”

Martin Luther King had to contend with people like them, too. But he didn’t listen. He knew change takes time. He knew he might not live to see the full fruition of his life’s work. But he also knew what he had to do.

We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.

We have a dream

The change we’ve seen over the past three generations has been incredible.

My grandfather was born in Poland; as a poor immigrant to Canada he worked like hell and put himself through medical school.

But when he graduated he went into private practice instead of taking a secure job at a hospital, because in 1929 there wasn’t a hospital in Toronto that would take a Jew on staff.

Don’t tell me things can’t change.

My mother graduated from one of the best high schools in Toronto. She probably could have become a doctor, too –  hell, she was the top student in her class; she could have been ANYTHING.

But when she met with her vocational counselor, he looked over her outstanding record and told her “You’re very precise. You’ll probably make a wonderful clerical worker.” In those days, women didn’t become doctors or lawyers or corporation presidents.

Don’t tell me things can’t change.

When Barack Obama was born in 1961, his prospects were even worse than my mother’s. She was a woman, and a Jew, but at least she was white.

Black men didn’t become doctors or lawyers. Black men were called “Boy” even when they had grey beards. Black men couldn’t eat at lunch counters or piss in public restrooms or sleep in hotels.

Black men who spoke up or talked back or didn’t know their place were regularly lynched across the South and even in the North – hunted down like animals by angry mobs and hanged or shot or worse.

Don’t tell me things can’t change.

You know change can happen. You’ve seen it with your own eyes.

On the red hills of Georgia

I have a dream – that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

In 1988, as a young reporter, I saw Jesse Jackson speak at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, and marveled that such a thing was even possible.

Just 20 years before, Ray Charles had boycotted Georgia because colored folk weren’t allowed to come into the auditoriums to see him play. Now, in what had been the heart of segregation country, Jesse Jackson took the podium in the state’s biggest venue and addressed the national convention of the Democratic Party – the party of John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, but also the party of Bull Connor and George Wallace.

Jackson had been the first black man to make a serious run at the Presidency. We all knew he could never be elected President, of course, but he had earned millions of votes – from blacks and whites alike – and had run a serious, issues-based campaign.

His speech electrified the nation. I’m sure that nobody watching or listening to Jackson dreamed that in just 5 election cycles, we’d be watching a Black man take the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States.

The content of our character

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.

Jesse Jackson lost the nomination to Michael Dukakis, of course, and Dukakis proceeded to get his ass handed to him by the first George Bush. A bully and an oilman, Bush won that election by ridiculing Dukakis. That’s been the tactic of the oppressor since time began: when you can’t make yourself greater, tear down the other guy.

Four years later, Bush tried the same tactics against his next opponents. He called Bill Clinton and Al Gore “Bozo and Ozone Man”, laughing at them for caring about the planet. But this time he got his ass handed to him.

Mahatma Ghandi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

They ignored us and continued pumping their oil and digging their coal. Then they laughed at us – called us “Ozone Man” and “Treehugger” and “Dirty Hippie”.

Now they are fighting us. But the tide has turned.

Sit down together

Change usually comes in ways you don’t expect.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, nobody expected it would start a movement that would change the way America dealt with race.

When Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring”, nobody expected it would take hold of the public imagination and change the way America dealt with the environment.

When Martin Luther King sat down to write the speech he gave that day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the phrase “I have a dream” was not the first thought that came into his head. It wasn’t even written on the pages of his manuscript as he ascended to the podium.

He was nearing the end of his oration when a voice from the crowd – it was the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson – cried out,  “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

Inspired, Dr. King extemporized. And it is that unexpected, unscripted portion of the speech that has inspired so many.

We have no way of knowing what’s going to come over the next two years, over the next 20, over then next 200. But one thing we know for sure: It will be what we make of it.

The urgency of the moment

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now… It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Change happens because we will it. Change happens because we make it happen. Inch by inch, heart by heart and mind by mind.


(Originally appeared at

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