Today’s holiday celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. always prompts me to dust off the “I Have Dream” speech.
It’s a revealing exercise to read the text of the speech rather than watch and listen to the speech.
King was such a gifted orator, you get the feeling he could recite the owner’s manual for a daisy-wheel printer and the audience would be out of their seats with emotion.
Yet, when you strip the speech down to just the words, the storytelling still offers unmatched verve.
While the section framed by repeating the words “I Have a Dream” forms the guts of the speech, my favorite passage is the following metaphor:
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
Words do make a difference.