When I was growing up, my mom had three pictures hanging on the living room wall: Jesus Christ, President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And while, as a 10-year-old, I vividly remember being struck by the anger, the riots, and the businesses in nearby neighborhoods burning on the day Dr. King was shot, I also remember my mother quietly shedding a tear when she told me a friend of the family had died.
From that moment until now, the dream Dr. King had shared and the importance of his contributions cannot be overstated or diminished by the lapse of time. Which is why, in celebrating the unveiling of the national memorial to Dr. King, we keep alive his fight for the freedom, equality, and dignity of all races and peoples.
As a young man, there was so much about Dr. King and his life to learn—his courage, vision, strength, and his humanity. But it was his perseverance that made the most profound impact on me. Dr. King's perseverance allowed him not only to achieve success, but also to achieve his dream: a dream that draws us to his memorial today; a dream that created a legacy for future generations; a dream that embodied the civil rights movement.
The beginning of this historic movement closed a chapter in America’s history, a chapter that chronicled the burdens of slavery and institutionalized discrimination; that imprinted segregated public accommodations and schools on the very soul of African-American life. A chapter in which the foundation of America—freedom and equality—was rocked by water hoses, police dogs and racism.
But Dr. King also knew that this movement towards civil rights would open a new chapter for America—a chapter we are still writing today; a chapter steeped in hope, opportunity and true equality.
We are the post-civil rights generation of African-Americans who have the opportunity, indeed the obligation, to not just talk about the hope of Dr. King’s dream, but to empower our communities to turn that hope into action.
Even with our dedication in granite and stone, we must acknowledge our work begins anew—not in the sense of starting over, but starting with a different perspective; a 21st century perspective focused on how we become full partners in the American Dream!
Thurgood Marshall once said that “none of us has gotten where we are solely by pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps. We got here because somebody bent down and helped us.”
From the middle passage to “legacy wealth,” we did not survive nor succeed on our own: somebody bent down and helped us.
The next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs in business, education, science, and industry are counting on us to still believe the dream is alive for them. They look to us to bend down and to help them to succeed as generations before bent down for us.
While Dr. King and countless “freedom fighters”—men and women whose names will never appear in a history book—made a place for our parents at the lunch counter, it will be our generation which will take ownership of the diner. We can no longer afford to hope for hope’s sake; it’s time to turn those hopes into action.
So, as we celebrate and reflect on the legacy of the civil rights era and recall the life and work of the man who lived and died for the true freedom of African-Americans and, indeed, all Americans, let us not only remember the past, but look to the future and understand that we, like Dr. King, are not just writing a chapter in the life of the African-American community—we are co-authors of the book called “America.”
Once we leave the celebrations and tributes behind, I hope each of us takes away an appreciation that if Dr. King were here today, he would encourage us to persevere as he did over a generation ago. He would remind us that “freedom is not free” and yet the dream remains alive; that success does not come without sacrifice, and the dream will survive.
From the abolitionist to the civil rights activist to the mother who simply wants to raise her son or daughter to have a better life than her, Dr. King’s legacy, our legacy, must never be forgotten or diminished. To do so undermines and weakens the very foundation on which we stand—one nation: equal, united and free.
From the heart of that 10-year-old boy I say, “Thank you, Dr. Martin Luther King.”
Michael Steele is the former Lt. Governor of Maryland and most recent Republican National Committee Chairman. He is a political analyst for MSNBC and contributing editor for The Root.
(Photo: Richard Sheinwald/Landov)