On August 28, 1963, one of the most important American leaders of the 20th century -- Martin Luther King, Jr. -- put his unforgettable signature on the Civil Rights Movement in America. His rousing "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial that day, was the poetic exclamation point to a peaceful, non-violent march on the nation's capital.
Exactly 47 years later, our nation's capital was once again the host for a day of political rallies and assertions of fundamental American principles. The outcome of these events on August 28, 2010, should serve as both a cause for celebration a poignant reminder that we have so much progress still to make in this great country.
The major event of the day was a massive rally in the same spot at the National Mall as Dr. King's speech, hosted by conservative political commentator Glenn Beck. Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally was billed as a non-political event and, in spite of the obvious leanings of the major speakers, the content was indeed focused on the moral direction of the nation, as opposed to political dogma. Even The New York Times headline this morning referred to the Beck event as a "religious rally" and described the event as "part religious revival, part history lecture."
The other event of the day was essentially a counter-rally, consisting of a five-mile march that culminated at the National Mall later in the day, which was hosted by liberal activist Al Sharpton. Sharpton's "Reclaim the Dream" march also attracted thousands of participants and its content was similarly light on the politics, heavy on the morality.
There is something uniquely American about the fact that these two events took place on the same day, in the same city, at nearly the same time. This is worth celebrating today.
For one thing, this was a beautiful picture of how we voice our differences in America, how we advocate for our concerns and express our visions for our country. We don't pick up guns and aim them at people who are saying something we don't like. We take to the streets, we pass out literature and we organize with people of like minds to make our one collective voice as loud as possible. Glenn Beck and Al Sharpton -- and the folks who attended their rallies yesterday -- may not see the world in the same way, but they share a love for this country and the political liberties it protects.
Second, yesterday's events illustrated the amazing progress we have made as a nation in such a relatively short period of time when it comes to the pursuit of that Great American Promise that all men are created equal. At one rally, you had a white man speaking alongside men and women of various races, each of whom was invoking the inspirational message of a black civil rights leader who pointed our nation down a path of racial reconciliation. At the other rally, you had a black man speaking alongside men and women of various races, seeking to maintain the truth and the essence of the same political movement. The participants in these two events literally passed each other at one point -- but contrary to any previously expressed concerns about clashes that might break out, the observers in the streets noted only polite exchanges between marchers. God Bless America, a nation that has come so far from the images of water cannons and church bombings and Whites Only signs.
However, the events of yesterday also illustrate that we have a long way still to go.
In spite of the efforts made by the sponsors of each event to make sure that the speakers were from diverse backgrounds, there was a pretty obvious elephant in the room when you stopped to take careful note of the attendee profiles for each rally. Beck's rally: An audience of predominantly white middle-aged people. Sharpton's rally: An audience of predominantly black middle-aged people.
Perhaps these differences were just the inevitable byproduct of the audience that each leader attracts -- it's no secret that Beck's radio and television demographic is almost entirely white and Sharpton has of course achieved his notoriety as a religious leader of black folks in New York City. But regardless, the fact is that we can't honestly say we have arrived at a moment in American history in which race is a minor factor when our politics are still so polarized. We may have integrated our schools, our restaurants and our workforces, but we still practice our religion and our politics in separate rooms.
This is not inherently an indictment on America -- the rest of the world functions much the same way, with people worshipping on Sundays and rallying on Saturdays alongside others from the same racial or ethnic background -- but it is a reality check for those of us who see racial polarization as a thing of the past in the U.S. And although there are some basic facts of human nature at work here, what is the statistical probability that yesterday's independent rallies would be attended almost exclusively by individuals from the same race?
It was maybe too tempting to think we put this stuff behind us two years ago when the nation elected its first black President. President Obama was elected because of votes from white, Latino and Asian Americans, bankrolled his campaign with donations from white, Latino and Asian Americans, and of course packed his cabinet with white, Latino and Asian Americans. This was progress on race relations, but progress is not the same as arrival.
So where is the basis for hope, where is the common ground from both of yesterday's rallies? Well, for starters, Glenn Beck's keynote address yesterday included a quote lifted from the Obama Teleprompter that he loves to mock. The Washington Post noted that Beck used the closing lines of then-candidate Barack Obama's campaign stump speech in 2008: "One man can change the world. That man or woman is you. You make the difference."
When you peel back the politics on various issues and the adrenaline that fuels political discourse, there is a strand of DNA that exists in every American patriot. It is a conviction that we are all entitled to the liberty that is provided by our Creator and protected by our Constitution. We express that liberty in a variety of ways, but most notably through a competition of ideas in the democratic marketplace -- the winning ideas are the ones that shape our nation's laws and policies for the next few years. Then we do it all over again.
So for those who are tempted to question whether our model of political expression really works, take a look at your calendar today for another historic date that occurred this weekend. On August 29, 1991, the Soviet Parliament voted to suspend all activities of the Communist Party in the U.S.S.R., the official action that signaled the collapse of the Soviet regime. Historians may differ on the series of events that triggered the collapse, but few of us truly disagree on the underlying cause: the Soviet Union was built on a bankrupt political ideology that denied individual citizens a meaningful voice in the shape of their government.
Yesterday, tens of thousands of Americans let their voices be heard and did so with love in their hearts for their country. It will be a greater day still when those voices come from faces of every color, regardless of the race or political orientation of the leader on the stage.