In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned a letter from his cell in the Birmingham Jail, where he and other protestors were detained for leading a series of nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham.
Last week on the Senate floor I participated in a bipartisan commemorative reading of Dr. King’s letter led by Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama. Senator Jones had standing to lead this reading not just because he’s from Alabama, but because of his work as the United States attorney prosecuting Klansmen who blew up a church on 16th Street in Birmingham, killing four children and injuring others.
Sen. Jones noted that the civil rights movement was not too long ago. He was right.
I remember a day in August of 1963 when I was working at the United States Department of Justice as an intern. It was a hot summer day and the Washington streets were filled with people marching. It was about lunchtime when I went outside into that crowd and heard a booming voice from a man who was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And I heard the words that he hoped his four little children one day would live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. At the time, I don’t know if I was fully understanding what I was seeing and hearing, but I was witnessing Dr. King give his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
A year earlier, in 1962, I had been a senior at Vanderbilt University. At that time, Vanderbilt, a prestigious institution, was desegregating its undergraduate school. I was a part of that effort. But even then, African Americans couldn’t go to the same restaurants, stay in the same motels, or even go to the same bathrooms as White Americans. Again, that was not that long ago.
I was in Memphis recently, and I was with a group of African American leaders and asked: “If this meeting were held 50 years ago, how many of the positions you hold would be represented at this table today by African Americans?” The answer very quickly was “not one.”
The struggle for civil rights is not a snapshot—it is a panorama. As Ben Hooks, former director of the NAACP, used to say, you have to understand that America is a work in progress. We have a long way to go in terms of race relations, but we’ve made great progress since Dr. King wrote this letter from his jail cell in Birmingham.
There is no part of being an American that is more essential than understanding our struggle with race. And the worst grades of our children are not in math and science, but in United States History. This is why remembering and revisiting important events from our country’s past, such as the letter Dr. King wrote from his jail cell, or his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington, are so important.