It doesn’t feel that long ago that I found myself glued to my family’s television set watching a young civil rights activist (who many called a “troublemaker”) address 250,000 supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
During a time in our nation’s history when we were ravaged by a hateful and deep racial divide, Martin Luther King Jr., in inspiring and soaring tones, outlined his dream of the end of racism and the achievement of a just and equitable society for all. The date was Aug. 28, 1963. It was the right speech, at the right time and the right place.
Fifty-three years later, Dr. King’s “dream” seems more distant than ever as the racial divisions in our country appear to grow wider with each passing day. Extensively published videos of fatal encounters between police and black civilians aged 12 and up during the past two years (from Ferguson to Baton Rouge) exacerbated the already palpable distrust felt in the African-American community towards those sworn to protect us all. Then, two weeks ago, it all seemed to come to a head with the gunning down of five Dallas police officers by a deranged angry black Army veteran.
On July 12, at a ceremony in Dallas honoring the fallen police officers, President Barack Obama was called upon to address the assembled throng. If there was ever a need for soaring rhetoric and an inspirational call for unity and understanding, it was then. President Obama did not disappoint and in my humble opinion delivered the best and most important speech of his presidency. It was the right speech at the right time and in the right place.
Early in his presentation he set out our dilemma, acknowledging the fact that we as a nation are facing a fundamental crisis of spirit and desperately searching for answers: “I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we’ve witnessed over the past week…All of us are angry and hurt. That is, the deepest fault lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened…we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if the African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs can ever understand each other’s experience.”
The president, early in his speech outlined in soaring tones the critical importance of our police: “...our entire way of life in America depends on the rule of law, that the maintenance of that law is a hard and daily labor, that in this country we don’t have soldiers in the streets or militias setting the rules. Instead we have police officers, public servants.” But he didn’t stop there: “When anyone, no matter how good their intentions may be, paints all police as biased, or bigoted, we undermine those officers that we depend on for our safety. And as to those who use rhetoric suggesting harm to police, even if they don’t act on it themselves…they not only make the jobs of police officers more dangerous, but they do a disservice to the very cause of justice that they claim to promote.”
To those who would dismiss legitimate complaints from the African American community as frivolous or racist, he had this to say: “Centuries of racial discrimination, of slavery, and subjugation, and Jim Crow; they didn’t simply vanish with the law against segregation. They didn’t just stop with a Dr. King’s speech, or when the civil rights or voting rights acts were signed…so when African-Americans from all walks of life, from different communities across our country, voice a growing despair over what they perceive to be unequal treatment…we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid.”
Mr. Obama urged us to reject despair at all costs and keep trying to understand each other: “For all of us, life presents challenges and suffering. Accidents, illnesses and the loss of a loved one: there are times when we are overwhelmed by sudden calamity, natural and man-made. All of us make mistakes, and at time we are lost. And as we get older, we learn that don’t always have control of things…But we do have control over how we respond to the world. We do have control over how we treat one another…Dallas, I’m here today to say we must reject despair. I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem.”
The truth is that we as a nation and as individuals can either try to bridge the divide or add to it. As President Kennedy and Martin Luther King did before him, President Obama issues a challenge to all of us: “Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us?” Mr. Obama warns of the other voices in today’s America, individuals and politicians who offer no solution but only a worsening of an already disheartening problem: “We can turn on the TV or surf the internet and we can watch positions harden and lines drawn and people retreat into their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout…we see all this and…it’s hard not to think…that things might get worse.”
Our president’s call to come together presupposes that we maintain an open heart: “With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans, to not just opponents, but enemies. With an open heart, those protesting for change will guard against reckless language going forward…police departments will acknowledge that just like the rest of us, they’re not perfect. That insisting we do a better job to root out racial bias is not an attack on cops, but an effort to live up to our highest ideals.”
For me, the essence of his message was summarized in his simple suggestion: “With an open heart, we can worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right.” As citizens, we have the opportunity to reject the calls of hatred and division and make a heartfelt effort to come together. In so doing we will, in President Obama’s words, “Reflect the good inside us, the hopes and simple dreams we share.”