”Tell them about the dream, Martin.
Mahalia Jackson, the renowned gospel singer and activist, shouted from the sidelines on that steamy August day in 1963. “Tell them about the dream.” Up until that point, as historian Jon Meacham points out in his latest podcast “It Was Said,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington was falling flat. With the world watching, he risked squandering this moment to stoke the fire of the movement he helped create with other Black men and women fighting for equality. Meacham points out that Dr. King’s speech was poured over by “too many hands” rewriting paragraphs and adding input. I’ve been there; that moment when what’s burning in your heart is diluted because there are too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s confusing and agonizing. Disorienting and inauthentic.
Because of all of the hard work that’s put into that moment by so many, it’s hard to take a step back and breathe. Difficult to remind yourself that speaking from your truth is the way you got there, and the way you’ll move forward. Meacham notes that there were some drafted verbose sentences that were tripping him up, not likely adding to any confidence or stirring the crowd. They gathered to hear the preacher, and Dr. King hadn’t brought them to the mountaintop quite yet.
In six words, Jackson cleared the way for Dr. King to remember who he was and why he was there. The tone shifted and changed. The preacher, emerged in this turning point to profess the beauty of hope and practical idealism that we cling to.
He had to be reminded who he was – a man who believed that we could move forward together in the promise of the Constitution that “all men are created equal.” A man whose most inspiring moments were ones of generosity, truth and sacrifice. A preacher whose legacy would be cemented in those moments and an activist who knew the ups and downs of fighting for justice. He had to be reminded that he was in the fight.
It makes me wonder what those moments are in my life. The turning points where someone who saw the promise could remind me why I’m there and what I have to share. A fire to fight for what is true and just for all. To unite in hope and not fear. To move forward with love and not division. To find strength when it feels all is lost.
If I were to clear away the noise and articulate my hope for our collective future, I have a few dreams in mind.
I have a dream that our country will be united with hope again; that we’ll realize this constant state of fear and anxiety is not how we move forward. That you can’t hate what you see up close, and that our country will spend more time in honest dialogue with a person of different viewpoints than spewing hate on an anonymous forum. I have a dream that we’ll abolish policies and legislations that police women’s bodies, restricts how love is shared, separates families who are seeking a better life. I have a dream that true listening and compromise will bring about policies bending toward equality. I believe our country can let love trump hate, hope conquer division.
I have a dream the next time I step on the same spot where Dr. King gave his famous speech, we’ll honor more of the dream he had than what we do now.
I have a dream that we can reframe our focus to fight for equality others because it is the right, compassionate thing to do. Dr. King said it best in his final speech, the “Mountaintop” address in Memphis, TN.
The question is not ‘If I stop to help this man in need what will happen to me?’ The question is ‘If I do not stop to help [the man in need], what will happen to them?’
May we be focused on listening to uncomfortable conversations and learning how we can put the greater good for all above our own preconceived notions.
And may we have a Mahalia Jackson that’s willing to remind us of what we hold dear.