By Rep. André Carson
It's not often four words change a nation's course. Yet that is precisely what happened on August 28, 1963. Standing in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln before 250,000 people who had marched to the Washington, D.C. mall, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. galvanized the civil rights movement and inspired a generation by uttering the immortal words - "I have a dream."
For many, Dr. King's name evokes first and foremost his incredible oratory. But Dr. King was so much more than eloquent words with unparalleled persuasive force.
Dr. King was our national conscience. He shook all Americans from their inertia and parochialism with a simple pronouncement that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." He rightly chided us to be mindful of our "inescapable network of mutuality." Despite being confronted with often-ruthless hatred, Dr. King remained a loving example of non-violence, thereby elevating spiritually all who toiled with him while winning unexpected converts to equality's cause. And, perhaps most critically, by advocating decent wages, working conditions, and the right of all people to organize, Dr. King awoke America to the reality that true racial equality grows from economic advancement.
Dr. King was also a servant-leader and pillar of courage. He saw the laws and customs that were making a mockery of America's guiding principle that "all men are created equal" and set out to ensure that change would have its day. Dr. King led the marches in hostile terrain, never avoiding danger, and it was his unrelenting pursuit of justice that ultimately meant he would make the ultimate sacrifice.
Arguably Dr. King's legacy is found, not in what he accomplished individually, but through what his example compelled so many others to do, even long after his passing. This is why I must admit I'm always amused when I read descriptions of Dr. King as "one of the most influential civil rights leaders." Dr. King should come with no qualifier, but if one be necessary, we should extend to him the distinction of being the most influential figure in American history to never hold public office.
It is for all Dr. King did and for all he inspired that the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. will be dedicated on August 28.
The opening of this memorial comes at a fitting moment in our nation's history. While we have witnessed incredible social progress in the decades since Dr. King's death, in particular through the elevation of an African-American to the office of the presidency, we have also seen an unfortunate resurgence of incendiary rhetoric and divisiveness, and far too many families face economic marginalization as the chasm between the haves and have-nots widens.
It is my hope that the memorial unveiling will bring renewed attention to Dr. King's clarion call for continuous, positive action, expressed most memorably in his Letter From Birmingham Jail:
" time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will."
If we take to heart our obligation to lovingly serve, if we ask what Dr. King believed was life's most persistent and urgent question -- "What are you doing for others?" -- we may, indeed, hew more stones of hope from a mountain of despair.