We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt

The title of this post is a quote from one of the most famous speeches ever made: “I have a dream” by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The de facto leader of the civil rights’ movement gave the rousing address at the end of the March on Washington, the 50th anniversary of which we commemorate today. Since then, his words have become some of the most iconic remarks of recent history.

Things you may not know about the 1963 March on Washington
King waves to a crowd of millions, 28th August 1963

A piece I have written about the March will hopefully be published on The Student Journals some time this week. In it I discuss not only the challenges blacks faced in 1960s America, but also what the term civil rights means to us now as we face the challenges of the 21st century. I am not going to repeat myself – you can hunt down the article for yourself. Instead, I am going to use the freedom of my blog to tell you what Martin Luther King means to me.

I still remember how it was that I came to know the story of the March. I was about ten years old, sitting in my year 6 English lesson and no doubt feeling very grown up. We had all finished our secondary school entrance exams just after Christmas, and the curriculum for the remaining two terms of our primary education was pretty loosely structured. My English teacher (who, as it happens, is responsible for turning me into a writer) decided to actually teach us something important. We studied Coming to England, a children’s book about a young Caribbean girl whose family immigrate in search of jobs. In the semi-autobiographical novel, the author describes the racism she faced in London during the Windrush era. My teacher was an amazing lady, and one of our favourite things about her was how easily she was side-tracked.

With this in mind, it was perhaps inevitable that we ended up talking about race relations in America. What could be better than “I have a dream” to introduce kids to the concept of rhetoric? The first time I read the speech, it sent shivers down my spine – it still produces goose bumps today. Why? Well, I guess I was starting to realise that I was different and all that that meant. I was beginning to realise I had a fight on my hands. Hearing someone articulate my dream of equality so eloquently – and being told how much he had achieved – had a profound impact on mini-me.

For homework, we were told to write our own dream speeches. My friends, being infinitely less weird than I was, wrote of owning ponies and such like. I wrote of being able to go to the shops without being stared at. When we read them out the next day, mine made my teacher cry. To this day, she reads it out every year, just before she sets the next cohort of year 6 children exactly the same task we had seven years ago. My speech, set on coloured card, is one of the few pieces of childhood work I still have, kept safe in a box in the attic.

In the intervening years I have learnt more about discrimination than I would have liked. I have also learnt that Martin Luther King was a darker character than his speech suggests. But 50 years after he stood at Lincoln’s feet and changed the world, I still see his words as I did in that stuffy classroom. The dream is more complicated now, but I still believe it can come true.

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