August 28th is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech, a watershed moment in the struggle for civil rights and Random House Children’s Books has been celebrating with a fabulous Civil Rights Movement blog tour. Today, it is my great honor to be part of that tour and I have a fabulous guest post here at AmoXcalli, by Matthew Olshan, author of THE MIGHTY LALOUCHE (illustrated by Sophie Blackall). Random House Children’s Books has put together an I Have a Dream enhanced website featuring the new picture book by Kadir Nelson, I HAVE A DREAM. The book is stunning, the paintings really pay tribute to the man, the movement and the speech. The book also contains a CD with the full speech.
Please join AmoXcalli, Random House Children’s Books and all the others on the tour in celebrating the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s historical speech.
The Promise of Freedom, Then and Now by Matthew Olshan
The word “freedom” blazes an incandescent trail through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” but what does he mean by it? What, exactly, is the freedom he dreams of, the kind that will ring from the mountaintops, that will cause the American people to join hands and sing ecstatically, “Free at last!”
Freedom from what? Freedom to do what?
Freedom from injustice, certainly. Freedom to pursue the American Dream.
For Dr. King, the American Dream is rooted in what he calls its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
He says this knowing all too well the irony in those sacred words from the Declaration of Independence. The men who wrote them didn’t really believe that men were created equal. Many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. And slaves weren’t created equal. You couldn’t own someone who was your equal; therefore, slaves weren’t men. At least, not fully. A slave was some fraction of a man. Call it three-fifths.
But those imperfect, 18th Century men were dreamers, too. They invented a country that promised more than it could deliver. They drew up a constitution with the goal of forming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, mind you, but a more perfect union. They understood that we live in the world; that the world is full of injustice, greed, and cruelty; that people generally want to do the right thing, but aren’t always strong enough to do it.
Ours has been a history of forgetting our promises, then remembering, and lurching, sometimes violently, towards the light.
Even some of our greatest triumphs have fallen short. Take the Emancipation Proclamation. Church bells rang out across the land on January 1st, 1863. Freed slaves and abolitionists alike were overjoyed. Surely there were ecstatic cries of “Free at last!”
But the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all the slaves. President Lincoln couldn’t risk losing the border states. The slaves in Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky may have heard distant ringing that day; alas, the bells weren’t ringing for them.
The century that followed the Emancipation Proclamation saw many gains for people of color, but also great backsliding. In states like Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama, equality wasn’t simply an impossibility; in huge swaths of the country, it was no longer even a dream.
Dr. King’s speech, smoldering with anger and yet brimming with hope, was meant to remind Americans of their creed, that promise of equality dating back to the Declaration of Independence.
Our union is certainly more perfect now. The scourge of slavery is long past. The worst abuses of Jim Crow are over.
But their legacy remains.
We’ll always need voices like Dr. King’s — righteous, melodious, idealistic, and stern — to remind us of the nation we were; the nation we are; and the nation we hope to be.
History shows us how easy it is to forget.
Matthew Olshan is the author of several novels for young readers, including Finn and The Flown Sky. The Mighty Lalouche, a collaboration with the award-winning illustrator Sophie Blackall, is his first venture into the world of picture books. Their next collaboration, Henry and Henri, which will be published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, is the story of the first international flight: a balloon ride across the English Channel in 1785, taken by an Englishman and a Frenchman who absolutely hated each other.??Matthew also writes serious literary fiction for adults. Look for Marshlands, a novel of military occupation and empire, due out from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in February, 2014