What Dr King's "I Have a Dream" Speech Meant to Me- Written for BK Nation
Dr King’s “ I Have a Dream Speech” changed my life, sparking a moral and intellectual transformation that led me to evolve from driven young man determined to beat everyone in everything to a civil rights activist and scholar in American History.
To understand where I ended up, you have to know where I started. I entered Columbia College in the fall of 1962 as a hyper-competitive 16 year old, a product of Brooklyn public schools, determined to prove that I could excel at an Ivy League college both athletically and academically. I tried out for the freshman basketball team, and got cut, but made the freshman tennis team and eventually won a spot as the number one player on the team, even though I was a product of Brooklyn public parks tennis. I joined the tennis team fraternity, had an active social life and worked overtime to get a B+ average. I was riding high. But my success hid an inner restlessness. I grew up with black friends and teammates and had always supported the civil rights movement, but felt so overwhelmed by proving myself at Columbia that I never did anything about it. I watched the Birmingham protests – with the hoses and police dogs set on non-violent demonstrators- with dismay, was deeply moved by James Baldwin’s portrait of Northern racism in is novel Another Country, but made no effort to become politically active and ended up spending my summer as a tennis counselor at an all white camp run by my high school basketball coach, where I self identified as a “beatnik” but had no opportunity to do anything bolder than hitchhike around the area on my days off from camp
Then, when I came home, shortly before I went back to school, I watched the March on Washington and found myself transfixed by Dr. King’s speech. As King presented a moral and spiritual challenge to every American to bring the nation’s ideals to life for the excluded, the stigmatized and the exploited, I felt he was talking directly to me, telling me that I could not be the person I aspired to be unless I put my talents at the service of this great crusade for justice. His words struck me with the force of a religious conversation. Unless I did something to stand up for a better America, I would be incomplete, prisoner of a quest for elusive personal victories which would always leave me dissatisfied
And so I made a decision. The day I arrived on the Columbia campus for my sophomore year, I would join the Columbia chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality and would make sure I did something meaningful. The decision led me to work as a tutor and tenant organizer in East Harlem, where for the first time in my life, I used my energy and ambition not to seek personal victories, but give people in need the wherewithal to empower themselves. That experience gave me a sense of purpose and an inner confidence that previously had been missing and translated into a more focused approach to my school work as well as an openness to friendship and love.
Dr King, you see, had reached me in a way no one had ever done before, touching an aching yearning not only for a better world, but a better self. This is what distinguished him from almost every other political leader in my lifetime. He put people in touch with enhanced sense of human possibility which ensued if they harnessed their driving will to succeed-what he later called “the drum major instinct”- to the cause of justice.