MLK (copy)

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is seen on Martin Luther King Day in Washington.

For many years now, students in schools from sea to shining sea have been rightfully taught Martin Luther King Jr. was the most influential American civil-rights advocate of the 20th century. During a time of unrest, it was this charismatic, southern Baptist minister who rose above his peers as the leader history ultimately saw carry the torch of equality in America to the finish line. He was the face of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Nearly six decades since King’s emblematic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., our country experiences more civil division than it has in years. It’s worth pondering on this 37th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day why King was so effective then and is so lionized now.

The situation surrounding King’s seminal moment in time, the 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, illustrates the essence of King’s vision. After various elements of the civil rights movement —  many wary of one another — agreed to work together, the day took on a message not of us vs. them, but of unity.

It’s somewhat forgotten to history that day wasn’t exactly scripted for King to be the magnum-opus main event. Labor leaders, clergy, movie stars and folk singers each also were allocated 15 minutes to speak. But King seized the moment in time, turning his formal recitation into something much more when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted, “tell them about your dream, Martin!”

So he did, saying it was “deeply rooted in the American dream.” He envisioned his own children being judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

The dream was not centered on ethnic or racial pride or strength. Rather, it was about togetherness and brotherhood among the “sons of former slaves and sons of former slaveowners in the red hills of Georgia,” and “little black and white boys and girls in Alabama holding hands as sisters and brothers.”

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Togetherness — overcoming society’s tendency toward tribalism — was King’s mission. It's also his legacy. And it's our country’s greatest societal achievement. In 1963, King knew we were oh-so-close to this uniquely-American accomplishment in the course of history. In his speech, he described the words of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence as “magnificent.”

We need to hear this now more than ever. The strength of the American people is in our ability to view people independently of characteristics such as skin color that have no bearing of the content of one’s character.

It shouldn’t be lost on history the American civil-rights movement was in large part victorious because King preached an explicit message of unity rooted in colorblindness. It was about our similarities, not our differences.

In 2022, the same perspective is paramount.

We believe King would be dismayed by the obsession with race and identity we are seeing among some in our society today. That's why it's imperative we Americans remember what exactly King dreamt of for the future. It was a place where race no longer would be an essential and substantive factor in one’s worth, though that limiting notion is oft advanced today in schools and society.

King looked forward to a time when race, long used to define and judge people, would be rendered moot. Society has yet to achieve that dream, but we have faith it will.