(NNPA)—“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”—Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963.
On Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C., two groups of Americans gathered on the National Mall to express their vision of freedom 47 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Unfortunately, the two groups seemed to be marching in different directions. One rally, co-convened by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, the National Urban League and a coalition of civil rights organizations, marched from Washington’s Dunbar High School to the site of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial under construction on the National Mall. That group marched to “Reclaim the Dream” that Dr. King so courageously and eloquently articulated at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963: “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back…We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
In the 21st century that means a national commitment to quality education for all. It means jobs and a living wage for all. It means affordable housing on fair terms for all. And it means quality and affordable health care that is accessible to all. Speaker after speaker, including myself, Rev. Sharpton, NAACP president Ben Jealous; D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Martin Luther King III, echoed these themes, which are also the major empowerment goals of the National Urban League during this, our 100th year anniversary.
It was fitting that the Reclaim the Dream rally began at a public high school. Education has always been the gateway to opportunity for African-Americans and Education Secretary Arne Duncan was on hand to once again call education the “civil rights issue of this generation.” Underscoring that commitment was the presentation by Larry Handfield, chairman of the board of trustees of Bethune-Cookman College, of a $100,000 four-year scholarship to high school student Leah Carr of northwest Washington.
Fox News talk show host, Glenn Beck, led the other rally, which took place at the Lincoln Memorial, the very spot where Dr. King rallied the nation to overcome its divisive past. Beck has made a living denouncing the concept of social justice, belittling the legitimate grievances of African-Americans, using faith as a wedge issue, and claiming that President Obama is racist and his policies are reminiscent of Nazism. In short, Beck is a world-class divider, and his march was designed to take America in another direction—back to its roots of states’ rights separatism. Unfortunately, Beck has amassed a large following. Many of them joined him and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin at their so-called “Restoring Honor” rally.
Their rally was not only about an outdated “us vs. them” vision of America, it was a cynical attempt to hijack the message and meaning of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. As I told the crowd at the Reclaim the Dream rally, “We will not stand silent as some seek to bamboozle Dr. King’s dream. We reclaim the dream because we are here to say we must be one nation.” At a time when Dr. King’s message of unity is more important than ever, the question must be asked: Is America marching in two different directions?
(Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.)