Approaching the state Capitol steps Wednesday for a 50th anniversary celebration of the 1963 March on Washington, you could hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech booming over the loudspeakers. It sounded just like him, but it wasn’t a recording.
Instead, the words were being spoken by Cecil Gibson, a teacher in the North Little Rock School District who manages online classes for students who have been expelled.
Gibson, also a reverend, has been doing this for more than 30 years. He learned the speech as a 10th grader at the Eighth Street Missionary Baptist Church in North Little Rock while performing in a black history program. He’s got King’s speech pattern down pat – the cadences, the emphases, the tone. Close your eyes and you’d never know it wasn’t King.
“I try to hit it as close to it as possible, exact as I can,” he said.
The event was organized by the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission. Students marched around the Capitol grounds to re-enact the events of 1963. The crowd was not huge, but it was somewhat diverse. There were more black faces than white faces, but there were white faces there, and not just those belonging to elected officials. Gibson noticed that.
“There was a time when I don’t think our white brothers and sisters would show up for an event like this,” he said. “Think about it: Many years ago, African-Americans would not be able to take a platform in a setting like this as they are today. And so, as a nation, as a whole, we’ve come a long way.”
Where would this country be were it not for King and his movement? I don’t know what a great nation is or even if one can exist, but you can’t be great if you’re not good, and the racial segregation that has marked so much of America’s history has not been good. We’re all slaves to something, and absent that movement, this society would be enslaved to a belief system that judged people based, to borrow King’s words, on the color of their skin rather than on the content of their character.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s was, in fact, a character-based movement, and not just that, but a Christian one. The Rev. King and his fellow “warriors” succeeded by following Jesus’ teachings to love one’s enemies and to turn the other cheek. You can punch me, they said, and you can turn fire hoses on me and throw me in jail, and I will not fight back, but I will stand my ground. They sought justice, not vengeance. Vengeance is someone else’s responsibility.
When subsequent Christian-based movements of various kinds have forgotten those principles; when they have focused more on winning short-term political battles than winning hearts and minds; when they have defined their enemies rather than loved them, they have not succeeded. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
At the same time that Wednesday’s event was being held in Little Rock, another one was occurring in Washington, D.C. Three presidents of the United States were there, one of whom is black.
That possibility seemed beyond a dream much later than in 1963, but here we are. Americans can legitimately agree or disagree with President Obama’s policies and like or dislike him as an individual. The passions he stirs are based on many complicated factors. Still, there is this fact: In 2008 and 2012, he was judged – both by his supporters and detractors – in large part on the content of his character.
That’s progress in a journey that is not complete. It’s a giant step forward in the wake of a 1963 march. And Gibson knows it as well as anyone. He sees it when he looks out at the crowds.
“Yes, there has been a major difference in just watching people receive the message,” he said. “We still, as I stated before, we have a long way to go. We’re not there yet. But we’re living the dream.”
(Mr. Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.)