I remember the hot summer of ‘63. I was 22 years old, leading demonstrations in Greensboro, N.C. to open up access to public facilities - restaurants, movie theaters, all those establishments that had been closed to blacks for so long. Because we were disturbing the peace as defined by Jim Crow law, I went to jail.
We filled jails across the South that summer, but our enthusiasm was building toward something bigger. Late in August, all roads led to Washington for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I asked my football coach if I could miss a few days of practice because I knew I had to be there.
On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed his dream of equality for our nation. He stood in the shadow of President Lincoln, the original emancipator, and dreamed of a day when a man would be judged by his character, not the color of his skin; a day when America would finally fulfill her broken promise of equality and freedom to all her citizens. The size of the crowd and the spirit of the moment were overwhelming. Dr. King did not disappoint.
Now, on the 45th anniversary of this historic speech, Barack Obama will take a monumental step toward fulfilling the Dream and mending the broken promise when he accepts the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. I have the same feeling now that I had standing in that crowd 45 years ago, listening to those words of challenge and inspiration from Dr. King.
Barack brings hope. Barack brings the promise of change. He brings a broad vision for making America better. He is smart, capable, a man of integrity. He is a proven fighter for what is right, with a message of reconciliation and peace. He has the support of an intelligent and accomplished wife, Michelle. His nomination is a transformative moment in American history, an indication that the Dream can be realized and the promise fulfilled.
In 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer and others fought to have black delegates from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party seated with the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic convention. It was an effort to introduce broader representation into the party and was initially rejected. The party tried to protect the old order, but the new order would not be denied and a compromise was reached. In 2008, at the convention, we will witness an African American accepting the party’s nomination. America has changed. America has become better. During the long primary season, we witnessed vivid signs of this change. Men across the country cast their votes for a woman. Whites supported a black candidate in massive numbers. It is a different, better America.
But America is at a turning point. We continue to pursue a war that is producing needless deaths, draining us of our financial resources and robbing us of our moral authority. Our national infrastructure crumbles - levees in New Orleans, a bridge in Minnesota - and we fail to make the investment necessary to fix it. We are failing our youth and jeopardizing our future greatness by letting our educational system deteriorate and responding by expanding our prison system: second-class schools, first-class jails.
We need the leadership Barack will bring. However, the burden of fulfilling the Dream, mending the broken promise, falls on all of us. I recall the story of a meeting that labor leader A. Philip Randolph had with President Franklin Roosevelt regarding a long list of discriminatory practices blacks were facing in society and the workplace. He clearly presented the case to the president, who listened carefully and responded. Roosevelt said: “I can’t just give you the rights you seek. I wish I could. I agree with everything you’ve said to me. Now go out and make me do it.” Barack will set the tone. He will provide the vision and inspiration to move forward. But it is up to us to do the work, to demand the change that must come if the Dream is to be fulfilled. We must make it happen.
Positive activism has always been the key component in the creative tension that leads to change. The tools are ours - demonstration, legislation, litigation - and each has a place in the work of building a just, equitable society. It is the effort of committed citizens engaging in positive activism that helps make a president great.
So, even now, we must continue to act. We can end this war, bring our people home and reinvest in America. We can commit to rebuilding our infrastructure, creating thousands of well-paying jobs in the process. We can build first-rate schools and end the procession of our young into the clutches of a massive for-profit prison system. We can stop babies from dying and children from going hungry, plants from closing, drugs and guns from flooding into our communities and hardworking, honest families from losing their homes to foreclosure.
Dr. King knew what he was risking when he took the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, 45 years ago. He knew what he was risking every day that he took the stage, every day that he ventured out to do battle against racism, ignorance, and evil. He often received death threats, but he never let that stand in the way of his holy mission.
As a fellow fighter who stood with Dr. King in the last moments before his death, and as a friend who saw the light fading from his eyes, I feel blessed to know that what will happen the night of Aug. 28, 2008, would make him very proud. But I also know he would tell us that we must not rest in pursuit of the Dream.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. is founder and president of RainbowPUSH Coalition Inc