Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fifty Years Ago Today

Writing is an incredible activity.  On one hand, it's a method of seeking entertainment for the writer--lots of us write because it's fun, or because it feeds our souls, or some such.  But on another, much larger hand, it's been a writer (the orator or another) who has crafted some of the greatest orations in the history of the world, and also some of the greatest speeches in the history of the United States.

I'm reminded of that sometimes when I see or hear reference to great speeches of old.  For example, on the battlefield near Gettysburg where, in a mere three days, tens of thousands of Americans died battling each other over things that they, likely, couldn't enunciate, an embattled President of the United States stood and delivered a pre-written speech that, though intended to be a fairly minor event, is still today repeated by schoolchildren and adults. 

You know: the Gettysburg Address.

You know: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

And so on.

The reaction wasn't really surprising.  Those who sided politically with the President praised the speech.  Those on the opposite side panned it as the "silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States."

That last bit sound familiar?  Yeah, it could easily be the Democrats' response to most of George Bush's speeches, or the Republicans' response to most of Barack Obama's speeches.

Gotta love partisanism, right?

Speaking of partisanism, President Lincoln that day referenced a document he'd signed into effect on January 1, 1963.  You've probably heard of that one too: the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that declared slaves free.  In, um, the states that were fighting against the Union, some historians will remind us, because, well, you know, what he signed that day wasn't a Congressional action.  It wasn't a bill at all, actually.  It was what we'd call today an Executive Order, issued by him under his authority not as President but rather as Commander in Chief.

Yes, that's right.  Lincoln freed the slaves in the United States in much the same type of action that has had Democrats calling for Bush's impeachment, and today has Republicans calling for Obama's impeachment.  The authority, specifically, of the Guy In Charge, doing something he felt needed done.

That was right at a hundred and fifty years ago.  Jump ahead now: fifty years ago.  Today.  August 28th, 1963.  Over a quarter of a million people gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Doctor Martin Luther King deliver a speech marking the emancipation of the Negro a hundred years prior.

It, too, is hailed as one of the greatest speeches in history.

I can't repeat it here due to copyright concerns.  That's okay--go read it here at BBC News, where they've done the work needed to obtain licensed permission to reproduce the speech in its entirety.  Especially, read down to the paragraphs that all begin "I have a dream...."  Really read those.

Keep in mind as you read them that, in those days, Mississippi and Alabama really were actively exerting effort to keep the black people segregated from the white.

We've come a long way, I think.  No, really.  There was partisan bullshit then, and there's still just as much partisan bullshit now (only now it's presented and promoted and propagated by entire electronic media networks).  But today I have black students sitting next to white students sitting next to students with other skin colors.  I expect them to all behave not as black students or as white students but--as students.  All around the nation there are deans who bear the same expectation as I.  That wasn't a general thing back then; now, it is.

Yeah, we still have problems.  You can't live for long in Memphis, or likely anywhere else in the deep South, and fail to witness the still-held resentment and anger on both sides of the color divide.  It'll take a while to get past all that, really--after all, slavery existed for longer than it has not existed in the colonies/states over here.

All I can really do about it, though, is to keep smiling at my black neighbor and my white neighbor equally, and treating them both as neighbors--not black neighbor, not white neighbor, just neighbor.

That, and I can honor the great speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, written extremely well and delivered fifty years ago, today.


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