Cover Story

America listened

Rising to the challenge: How economic change and cultural renewal-amid personal pain and travail-brought a race-riven nation together

Issue: "A new division, a new dream," Aug. 25, 2001

During the middle of my century, there lived a man among us who expressed a vision for America, a vision that rallied our thoughts and bolstered our resolve. I was barely out of my teens when his name, voice, and vision held America and the world transfixed. I watched him from what is now an ancient media outlet-a small black-and-white television, suspended from the ceiling of a small confectionary in St. Louis. But it was as if I were among the thousands at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in our nation's capital, when Dr. Martin Luther King, a fiery young Baptist-preacher-turned-civil-rights-activist, awakened us to the power of dreaming a new and better America. That was 100 years ago, and I have lived long enough to see our nation's response to his historical challenge. I am old, and there is much I could share with you from what I have witnessed over my lifetime. I have seen the evolved economic order and the struggle to ensure that the middle class, the bedrock of democracy, does not disappear from America. I have watched technology affect our daily lives. But for now, I will focus on what I saw when our nation was challenged by a dream. A century ago, we as a nation were still grappling with the issue of race. The movement from slave to citizen had not been an easy journey. So imbedded were the negative notions of skin color that the end of chattel slavery led to a new institutionalization of fear. Yet in the midst of this struggle for identity, acceptance, and recognition, the blacks in America were planting their dreams and hopes in the soil of our democracy. Their planting was often interrupted by violence, death, and calculated biases; still they persisted. Recognizing the value of education, they fought for access and eventually equal access. They built colleges. They became soldiers. They were doctors, lawyers, and eloquent preachers. Still the vestiges of slavery and the perception of their worth worked against them, becoming stumbling blocks to their full participation in American society. They-we-were struggling hard, but wondering just how many more rivers we'd have to cross. It was in the midst of this great paradox of freedom proclaimed but often categorically denied that Dr. King grew up and rose to the occasion to challenge America's testimony. We had proclaimed liberty around the world and fought to ensure it for others, while here at home, some of us were yet to feast fully at the table of full liberty. Dr. King reminded America of her shortcomings and recalled all of us to our duty. While he embraced the documents of our heritage, he wisely pointed out that they demanded a better representation than we had given. He eloquently quoted from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights; these documents focused Dr. King on his journey, a journey that brought him to the nation's capital on that hot and humid day in August of 1963. While the penetrating eyes of the immortal Lincoln looked on, thousands focused on the perspiring face of Dr. King. With his words he showed us a place of vision, a dream of greatness. He had felt our hurt and endured our shame, but that day in Washington, he reached deep into the recesses of his faith and looked beyond a divided nation to one nation under God. He knew that only selfless relationships could erase the hurts of the past and create a new future where "on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners would be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood." We knew it would not be easy, because so many carried the scars from the past, while others were determined to live in the past. It seemed as if our hearts were seared with his words and even when we veered from the court of doing right, we would hear his thundering voice reminding us that we should all be part of his dream, a dream for America. In 1832, France sent two men to our young country, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont. They made many astute observations and said that America's democracy depended in part on her handling of the issue of race. Dr. King, 131 years later, again brought this challenge to our attention. I am pleased to say America listened. It wasn't without pain and travail, but we listened. There now exists a civility in our country that only comes from forming and embracing good relationships at all levels. Two factors helped: The first, of course, was the technological revolution and its impact on the American economy. That seems fitting, since it was the low-tech cotton economy of the South that created and maintained the great racial divide for so long. But by the end of the 20th century, the high-tech economy was changing the way we lived. The marketplace became truly global; the world was shopping, and the world was buying. Corporations had no choice but to hire the best and the brightest, whatever their ethnicity. This yielded an unexpected fruit; as people got to know each other, solve problems together, and create visions as teams, the relationships spilled over into neighborhoods, places of worship, and the places we played. Our everyday living has been profoundly affected by this change of focus. Look around you, what do you see? Cousins all? Well, at least some of you. Yes, much has changed, though there are still pockets of mistrust and misplaced pride among us. The issue of color has not become a moot issue, but it does not define our lives as it did during the lifetime of that great American patriot. The second factor was also an unexpected fruit. We have seen the heart of Dr. King's dream lived out as young children without homes and family have found love and warmth in the homes of those ethnically different from themselves. We embraced cross-racial adoption, and we have found that it is helping to ensure our future. The children from cross-racial families bring kin and friends together in ways we never imagined. It seems as if we have at last discovered our common humanity. I have lived long enough to see at least the beginning of the fulfillment of that August speech. We are becoming Dr. King's dream.

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