by Andras Corban-Arthen
Fifty years ago today, I – like so many others all around the country – was glued to my family’s used, grainy black & white television set, watching the broadcast of the huge civil rights March on Washington at which Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The March is now widely considered to be the defining moment of the Civil Rights Movement, and it was so powerfully stirring to watch how that speech galvanized the massive gathering in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
King’s speech was not merely a personal statement: though he was taking the initiative, his words were clearly an exhortation, an invitation to join and shape a collective Dream, to create a better, freer, kinder and more just society. It was very clear, that afternoon, that several hundred thousand people had signed on to be Dreamers together; and I, a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old riveted to a flickering screen, signed up in that moment as well.
I was living in Florida at the time, about to enter the eighth grade, and haltingly starting to develop a social conscience. Except for rare instances, I had not been very aware of racism and segregation until we moved to Florida, where such problems were omnipresent. As a Hispanic, I experienced ethnic hatred and discrimination for the first time, even to the point of getting beaten-up by Anglo sandlot bullies a few times, just because they heard me speaking Spanish.
But as a white Hispanic I mostly passed unscathed, and didn’t have to deal with the constant fear and humiliation that my black and Hispanic dark-skinned friends had to endure – physical violence, spitting, catcalls, having things thrown at them, getting kicked out of stores or certain movie theatres, for instance. And my black friends, in particular, didn’t feel that they could fight back, because they knew what would happen, they’d heard all heard the stories: if you fought back, you’d get an even worse beating, and then the cops would come, and finish the job before they locked you up; and then you’d go to court and become a “juvenile delinquent,” which in those days was about the worse thing that could happen to a kid with dreams of going to college or getting a decent job.
I was on the track team at school, and I’ll never forget the time when, at a meet in northern Florida, the black athletes on our team were told they’d have to use an old, tiny bathroom that smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned in decades, while the rest of us could use the large, clean modern facilities at the stadium. We told our coach that we refused to compete under those circumstances, that we’d rather get back on the bus and head home. But our black athletes got very upset and insisted on competing, reminding the rest of us about how Jesse Owens had one-upped the Nazis at the Berlin Olympics. One of them, our star runner, put it in words that have been engraved in my memory ever since: “Segregation can keep me from pissing next to the white boys,” he said, “but segregation can’t keep me from beating them in the hundred-yard dash. I want those white boys to be looking at my black ass all the way to the finish line.”
My actual awareness of what the struggle for civil rights was really about happened through Annie, the mother of one of my school friends who was also a track teammate. Annie was blonde, blue-eyed, freckled – about as white as a person could be. But she was affiliated with the Catholic Workers, the movement started by the famous socialist writer Dorothy Day, which focused on social justice and service, non-violence, and the eradication of poverty; and the Catholic Workers were staunch supporters of the Civil Rights Movement.
Annie’s son and I did a school project together on racial segregation, and she became our main source of information. As part of the project, she took us to a big demonstration in downtown Miami, where we met several other kids our age – also from Catholic Worker families – and we all hung out together holding our signs. Afterwards, the parents took us all for ice cream, and, just like that, we organized an informal discussion group which began meeting every few weeks at Annie’s house, and she and some of the other parents started taking us to other marches and demonstrations. It was Annie who first told me about the March on Washington, and it was because of her that I got the chance to see Martin Luther King in person.
It was a year after the March, in the summer of 1964, just before we started high school. We had a track meet scheduled in St. Augustine, a city in northeast Florida which had become widely known as the hot spot of racial tension in the state. The Catholic Workers had learned that an important civil rights event was being planned in St. Augustine – as it happened, just a day or two after our competition – and that Martin Luther King was expected to be there. My parents knew and respected Annie, so they raised no objections when I told them she was going to drive us to the track meet, and that she was hoping we could spend a couple of extra days up north visiting some of her friends.
The demonstration took place outside a segregated restaurant, and by the time we arrived there were quite a lot of people – maybe a couple of hundred – gathered outside, from both sides of the struggle, with lots of shouting back & forth. The Ku Klux Klan was there, they had a big presence in that city. A lot of people, including us, were very afraid of what might happen: President Kennedy had been assassinated less than a year before, and several million of us had seen Lee Harvey Oswald killed point-blank on live television, so there was a lot of concern that some Klansman would take a shot at Martin (that’s what most everybody involved in the movement called him back then, just “Martin”). We figured that, the more of us who were there, the less likely it would be for someone to try to shoot him.
Annie wouldn’t let us get too close to the front, in case things got hot and we needed to get out of there quickly. Since we couldn’t see very well over the crowd, we took turns hoisting each other up on our shoulders to get a better look. There was a group of people, both whites and blacks, at the door of the restaurant. It turned out that MLK and several other black civil rights leaders had demanded to be served in the restaurant, had been denied, and refused to leave. Then the police arrived, maybe a dozen cruisers, and went right over to the group by the door. After a bit, they started pulling several of the black men away and toward the cruisers, in handcuffs (I recall a couple of them raising their hands high so everyone could see the shackles).
Martin Luther King was unmistakable as they led him off: he was impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, and he walked very straight and very calmly. Perhaps it was just the excitement of finally seeing him in person, but there was something remarkably different about him, as if he had a glowing aura all around – as if the sun were shining exclusively on him. I have never seen another human being exude as much dignity as he did in that brief moment.
And then they put him in the cruiser, and there was a huge uproar and people started rushing forward to prevent the cars from moving. At that point, Annie decided that things could get really ugly, and insisted that we leave while we could. I only saw Martin for a few seconds, but those few seconds had a huge impact on me, and marked a turning point in my life. Then, of course, less than four years later a bullet finally found him and, in a few short seconds, he was gone.
But the bullet that killed Martin Luther King did not kill the Dream he spoke of fifty years ago. After his death, the Dream spread and grew, reaching peoples and places throughout this country and beyond. The Women’s Liberation Movement (what these days is often called “second wave feminism”), the American Indian Movement, the Anti-War (Vietnam) Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and even the Environmental Movement, among many others – movements which have profoundly changed the culture of this country in ways that many people today just take for granted, in ways that they can’t even see – were all inspired by the power of that Dream shared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And from Latin America to South Africa, from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia, peoples around the world have acknowledged the power of the Dream to guide their own struggles toward freedom.
Just a couple of years ago, at the height of the “Arab Spring,” I had the privilege of attending a private dinner in honor of Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who was one of the keynote speakers at the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona. Someone at the dinner asked Ebadi to what she attributed the sudden surge of protests, uprisings and revolutions throughout the Arab world. Ebadi replied that, for some reason, the uprisings seemed “sudden” only to Americans; that, in fact, the various liberation movements in the Middle East had been going on for decades, and many thousands of activists had been imprisoned, tortured, executed or disappeared over the years in the course of their struggle, and that people in lots of other countries were well aware of that. The leaders of those liberation movements, she added, had spent a very long time learning from the Civil Rights Movement in the United States – from its principles, its spirit, its strategies, its success. And then she spoke movingly of Martin Luther King giving voice to the Dream before the gathered multitude in Washington. “That Dream,” she said, “is now also our Dream.”