Marching on to the beat of King's drum

Every January, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech rolls through our collective consciousness like a year-end clearance sale. Everybody tries to weigh in on, cash in on, and grab pieces of the civil-rights leader's image and legacy, using his most famous speech to do it.

Grainy black-and-white footage of the historic March on Washington, where King delivered the speech, gets aired for every news cycle. Sound bites that repeat phrases like "content of their character" and "let freedom ring" replay on the radio. Cyberspace bursts with homemade videos of kids paying homage to King by reciting the speech.

The ubiquity of the modern mass culture ensures that every year, the speech will be everywhere. The superficiality of mass culture ensures that little, if any, context will be behind it.

In many ways, the first half of King's speech - the part we seldom hear - packs the most power.

In the summer of '63, a coalition of organizations was in the throes of securing a national Civil Rights Act that was still almost a year away. The March on Washington helped galvanize that effort.

King took white America to task in front of the Lincoln Memorial before hundreds of thousands of people on that sultry day in August, urging it to make real the promises of democracy.

"This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," he said. "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.. . ."

With his words, King practiced aggressive nonviolence, as a fellow activist, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga), liked to call it. Nonviolence with some sting in it.

But the beauty of his speech, why it remains a rhetorical masterpiece, is that it sought to unite, not divide; to include, not exclude. It remains a blueprint of how we should conduct ourselves today as a nation.

It wasn't a speech filled with talk of policy or economic indicators, or cost-of-living mumbo jumbo.

It challenged a nation in no uncertain terms, all the while recognizing the good in people - whether it lay dormant or not. And because his life was steered so much by biblical principles, King's speeches were filled with moral appeals, which could not be ignored if we were people of goodwill. He assumed all people were decent, even while he was getting beaten down.

Most of all, he had hope.

More than 40 years after "I Have a Dream," hope is challenged once again. As a nation, we're in a cycle of mourning. We've lost thousands of Americans in Iraq. The floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina washed away lives and exposed a government indifferent to its most vulnerable citizens. The poor remain, as King put it that day in D.C., the "veterans of creative suffering." We are trying to stay afloat in so many ways.

But as the recent elections proved, a people once divided is yearning to be unified.

And interestingly, out of this need has emerged Barack Obama, a black leader in the mold of King.

Obama, the only African American in the U.S. Senate, advocates for the poor and disadvantaged like a grass-roots activist and speaks like a preacher. "Our individual salvation," Obama writes in his latest book, "is linked to our collective salvation."

He doesn't tie up our progress in victimhood so popular with our rent-a-leaders.

He understands the middle class and its struggles and offers practical solutions for self-empowerment.

And the son of a black father and a white mother, Obama literally transcends race.

But as fast as Obama's star has risen, it's almost impossible not to view him as too good to be true.

Even if he emerges as a legitimate presidential candidate, he knows he can't do it alone.

"We have the tendency to look for a single messiah - the next Martin and the next Malcolm," Obama told "We need collective leadership."

There will never be another Martin Luther King Jr. He was the perfect leader for that moment in time.

In King, we had reason to dream.

In Obama, we have the audacity to hope. All of us.

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Contact staff writer Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or To read her recent work, go to