Today, we in the US pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a national holiday honoring his legacy. I am grateful that we have such a holiday to honor Dr. King. The meaning of the holiday is expressed beautifully through the words of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King:
On this day we commemorate Dr. King’s great dream of a vibrant, multiracial nation united in justice, peace and reconciliation; a nation that has a place at the table for children of every race and room at the inn for every needy child. We are called on this holiday, not merely to honor, but to celebrate the values of equality, tolerance and interracial sister and brotherhood he so compellingly expressed in his great dream for America.
It is a day of interracial and intercultural cooperation and sharing. No other day of the year brings so many peoples from different cultural backgrounds together in such a vibrant spirit of brother and sisterhood. Whether you are African-American, Hispanic or Native American, whether you are Caucasian or Asian-American, you are part of the great dream Martin Luther King, Jr. had for America. This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday. And it is the young people of all races and religions who hold the keys to the fulfillment of his dream.
The expression of Dr. King’s dream in his famous “I have a dream” speech (full video) is all the more remarkable because it wasn’t planned. It came forth spontaneously when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson — there on the podium behind Dr. King — raised her voice and said, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” You don’t hear her exclamation in the audio, but you can see the change in Dr. King in the video. He had been looking down at his notes throughout the speech but after Mahalia Jackson’s plea, he looks up from the podium (video) and doesn’t look down again for quite a while as he utters his soaring words, sometimes with his head tilted towards the sky. Even setting aside the incredibly inspiring content of the speech, it is a remarkable display of rhetorical skill.
Dr. King’s dream has grown more personally meaningful to me with every passing year. Five years ago, my wife and I welcomed an adopted son from Korea into our family, making our family a multi-race family. Our family is a tribute to the purity of love — my wife, son, and I are not related to each other by blood but bonded only by our love for each other. That unconditional love for my beautiful son has opened my eyes to racism in a way they had never been opened. My son has been asked what is “wrong” with his beautiful eyes. People have said upon just meeting him, “I bet he’s good at math” (he isn’t particularly good at math). I’ve learned that these comments and other things are “normal” and that Asians are the most-bullied in school. We simply do not live in a color-blind, post-racial society even in 2017. That is why Dr. King’s words remain so important today and more meaningful to me than ever before: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (video)
Like Dr. King, I can see a world where we can reach across the boundaries of race and culture to build lasting bonds of love based on our common humanity. I know this is possible because I’ve experienced it with my own family. I’ve learned that one of the tragedies of racism is that it prevents people from seeing the humanity of others and opening themselves to love and be loved by people who are only superficially different from us. I’ve experienced the profound love that can happen when you erase those boundaries and it gives me hope.
On this “people’s holiday,” Dr. King’s dream is my dream, too. And I will always be grateful to Mahalia Jackson for saying to Dr. King: Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!