(The Root) — I was a 17-year-old face in the crowd of 250,000 when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his immortal sermon at the March on Washington. I was standing so far behind the Reflecting Pool that I could barely make out the figures on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the historic words were an indecipherable echo.
It wasn’t until I watched the TV coverage of the event that I knew what King had said. And while I, like everyone else who has ever heard the speech, was moved by King’s soaring refrain — “I have a dream!” — that wasn’t the part that stuck with me.
Then, and even more now as a 67-year-old grandfather, I was more touched by an earlier passage in King’s address, the part in which he stressed the real purpose of what was, after all, a march for jobs and freedom, not some vague notion of racial equality:
“We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ “
Fifty years later, we are still waiting for that check to clear.
As many other articles about the march that have appeared on The Root and other websites have spelled out exhaustively, we have come a long way since the March on Washington, but not always in the right direction. There’s no need for me to detail the ambivalent facts about how the explosive growth in our economic and political power over the past 50 years has still left a huge number of our people trapped in the nightmare that is the precise opposite of King’s dream.
Achievements that would have been unthinkable when the great civil rights leader’s thundering voice boomed out across the National Mall have been realized. If King were making his speech today, demanding that that figurative check finally be cashed, it would be a black president who would be called on to find a response. But as much as it pains me to say this, I’m afraid that his response would be that the account is still overdrawn and the debt will remain unpaid.
I believe, with the full benefit of 20-20 hindsight, that our dilemma stems from a lack of strategic thinking about the full consequences of our strides toward freedom. Over and over again during the past 50 years, our leaders have failed to foresee the unintended consequences of our success.