He made it our struggle

The first time I remember hearing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was in high school in the 1970s. I was moved and inspired. But I was also recognizing that while I had grown up during the Civil Rights era, the events that defined it and made King’s words so powerful were a world away from my own experience. I wanted so much to be part of what had happened and what was still happening, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t feel I really had the right.

Now, I know that cultural isolation was part of the mosaic of the times. We weren’t prejudiced in my town, I thought. But we also lived in a place — Darien, Conn., a suburb of New York City — that had conveniently removed itself from any threat of conflict. We didn’t have any African American or Asian American teachers or neighbors. We weren’t taught the history of other countries or cultures. In high school, I probably couldn’t easily name a single African American author. It is likely that Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was the first exposure I had to a African American voice, outside of Motown music.

I am thankful the world has changed enough since then that it became easy for me to know and be influenced by people of many different cultures and backgrounds. I’m thankful my son, who is Asian American, is growing up knowing his own voice is valued and important. I’m proud of the work the Mariposa Museum in Peterborough is doing to share different cultural experiences and traditions and points of view, so we can all continue to understand each other better. But we are still a divided country, and on many different fronts.

King’s words today remind me that change rarely simply happens, and that it took generations of people over many decades, at unimaginable risk and sacrifice to make change happen.

Meaningful to me is that I can read or hear “I Have a Dream” speech now without any feeling of distance. I know we are all important to the dream, regardless of ethnicity, gender, economic bracket or age. We are all part of one another. There are so many things about that speech that I love. I love that it wasn’t the speech King came prepared to deliver, but came out of the moment, looking out on the sea of faces at a pivotal moment in history.

I love that on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King did what Lincoln had done at Gettysburg — frame the struggle for racial equality within the context of America’s struggle for liberty. I love that he referenced the vision of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the American Dream and the promised land of an African American spiritual all together. In this way, he offered not only the dream but the struggle for equality and its achievements and its costs to all Americans. He made it part of what it means to be American. It was an incredibly generous gift.

Karla Hostetler is the executive director of the Mariposa Museum and World Culture Center in Peterborough.

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