Fifty years ago this week, America shook. And it quaked because of the power of words.

When the spirit of God came over the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial, the Baptist minister called America to a new reality. King challenged us to complete our quest for freedom and recognize that we all are created equal in the eyes of God.

Interestingly, his speech did not start out that way on Aug. 28, 1963. He began with a "serious" address that he and others had tediously crafted. King did not turn the nation in a new direction until Mahalia Jackson called from nearby, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin."

At that point, he departed from his fine-tuned text, reached deep into his soul and pointed us toward a new and better America.

By now, his words are a familiar part of the American creed. But in 1963, his vision that "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood" was revolutionary.

As author Jon Meacham explains in Time magazine, King's "words were as essential to the nation's destiny in their way as those of Abraham Lincoln, before whose memorial King stood, and those of Thomas Jefferson, whose monument lay to the preacher's right, toward the Potomac. The moments of ensuing oratory lifted King above the tumult of history and made him a figure of history - a 'new founding father,' in the apt phrase of the historian Taylor Branch."

King was presenting a broader road for America, although his prophecy was hard for many whites to absorb, including where I lived, in Texas.

White Southerners, especially, lived in a world of segregated schools, even though the Supreme Court had struck them down. We lived in a world of black women raising white children, even though those maids could not drink out of the same public water fountains as those children. And we lived in a world of racial epithets, even though we professed our love of God in our pews each week.

That was the world that many of us white baby boomers were growing up in on that dramatic day in 1963. My grandmother's maid and I spent hours talking, often about baseball while I acted like a pitcher in "her" kitchen. Later, as I realized the gulf between her life and ours, the sickness of racial segregation became all too apparent.

King changed that twisted reality with the power of his words. Not in an instant. Not even within a few years. But slowly and surely, the irrefutable wisdom of the truth he spoke, rooted in the biblical concepts he had long studied, reformed America.

Of course, we are still being reformed. Many of us take pride in having an African-American president, even if we don't share all his views. But blacks occupy too many of our prison cells. And the percentage of African-American children passing national achievement tests still trails the rates of white children passing the same tests.

What's more, we now have a demographic change underway that was not imaginable 50 years ago. Race in America is no longer about black-white issues. The rapid growth of Latinos makes it about black-brown-white challenges.

In states like Texas, California and King's own Georgia, the primary racial question of the next decade is whether their many Hispanic residents will realize their full potential. The answer will come through religious figures once again leading the way toward inclusion, education strategies that make sure no child is left behind and an immigration bill that keeps America a welcoming society.

In the 1960s, practical, forward-looking leaders translated King's dream into law. We don't know if enough leaders will do the same for Latinos.

Or whether we will have visionaries like King, who will shake us awake with their words. We should hope for them, because we still need reforming as we are being reformed.

William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Email him at

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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