Content of character remains a challenge, 50 years later

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJuly 6, 2013 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his 'I Have A Dream' speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963.

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The following column was originally published in January 2006.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. struck the heart of America's core values in his "I Have a Dream" speech 50 years ago this summer.

"In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check," he said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

All Americans, he said, are equal heirs to the Founders' promissory note "that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the 'unalienable rights' of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' "

But for black people, he said, the check had come back marked "insufficient funds."

King said he "refused to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation."

The huge throng standing in the sweltering heat, including native Hilton Head Islander Arthur Frazier, demonstrated the urgency for the sharp change that King addressed.

Today, another facet of that speech needs an equal sense of urgency. It is the part about character.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," King said.

We have made progress since 1963 in not judging people by the color of their skin. But what progress -- by both whites and blacks -- has been made on the content of our character?

Historian James I. "Bud" Robertson Jr. of Virginia asked a group in Bluffton recently: "Can you name any way we are morally better than we were 30 years ago?"

The room fell silent.

Look what has happened to the family structure, the nature of prime-time television, popular music lyrics and the violence of video games.

The line between right and wrong is blurred. Everything's OK to somebody, so it's OK.

Partisanship is intolerable. Even as New Orleans was filling with water, I heard a leading radio talk show blowhard speaking not of lives at stake but of voting patterns in the precincts involved. It was sick.

People choose their own "facts," and the way we talk to each other today is unimaginable. Look online to see the "conversations" on current issues. It's unbelievable how crude and mean it is, and I'm not talking about people over there. That includes people right here.

When I see what passes for pop culture, entertainment and public discourse, I often wonder, "Don't these people have mothers?"

Money has chased away a lot of character. It now rules our democracy, which Congress is bankrupting faster than the mind can grasp.

As Ernest "Fritz" Hollings of Charleston left the U.S. Senate after 38 years, he told his colleagues: "We need to disenthrall ourselves from this money grubbing and go to work finally for the country instead of the campaign.

"That is our situation. I have watched it. I have studied it. I have seen it. They don't have me going to (policy) meetings. They have me going to the telephone and calling and calling (for donations), traveling all over the country for money. Money is a cancer on the body politic."

He said he had to raise $80,000 per week for six years to afford his last campaign in 1998.

The more money involved in federal budgets and campaigns, the greater the risk of corruption.

Woodrow Wilson said, "If you will think about what you ought to do for other people, your character will take care of itself."

As we approach the 50-year anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech in August, we still need to look not at the color of our skin but at the content of our character. Are our personal checks coming back marked "insufficient funds"?

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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