In front of the Lincoln Memorial in June, a group of students caught up in a moment of spontaneous patriotism broke into song. But the US Park Police were quick to shush the members of the Young America’s Foundation, saying singing is not allowed at the memorial. The song that was stifled? “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
So much for freedom of speech.
At the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta this July, an official at the memorial to one of the greatest civil rights leaders in the world – my Uncle Martin – removed a bullhorn from the hands of Father Frank Pavone, an internationally recognized leader of the pro-life movement. We were a group more than 100 strong, in Atlanta to declare that abortion is the greatest violation of civil rights in our day. We brought a wreath to lay at Uncle Martin’s grave while we prayed, but due to a King Center official’s barricade at the gravesite, we weren’t allowed. The National Park Service said that would constitute a demonstration.
So much for freedom of assembly.
Symbols of liberty
Americans are hungry to reclaim the symbols of our liberty, hard won by an unlikely group of outnumbered, outgunned, underfunded patriots determined not to live in servitude to the British Empire. If we want to sing the national anthem at a memorial to the man who led this fledgling nation out of slavery, and made my people free, we should be able to send our voices soaring to the heavens.
Glenn Beck’s “Rally to Restore Honor” this Saturday will give us that chance, and that’s why I feel it’s important for me to be there.
Before the words were out of Mr. Beck’s mouth announcing the Aug. 28 rally, The New York Times noted that it would be at the same place and 47 years to the day since my Uncle Martin gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” When asked why he chose that date in particular, Beck said he had not realized its significance, but in thinking about it, he saw it is an auspicious day to rally for the honor of the American people. He has said, and he’s right, that Martin Luther King didn’t speak only for African-Americans. He spoke for all Americans, and his words still ring true.
Other groups are planning rallies and demonstrations in Washington that day, and freedom of speech gives them the right to do so – and to criticize me for not jumping on their bandwagon. But Uncle Martin’s legacy is big enough to go around.
A rally about character, not politics
Though critics see it as partisan, Beck’s rally is not a political event, per se. Instead, it is designed to be a refreshing exercise of freedom of speech.
The rally will be a celebration of who we are as a nation and a chance to stop for a moment, reflect, reorganize, and re-energize. It’s a chance to think about character; both our character as a nation and our character as individuals.
Delineating ourselves as red state or blue, liberal or conservative, minority or majority, we have not quite reached the day when men and women are “judged not by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.” We are still marching toward that day. As Uncle Martin said, “we cannot turn back.”
The rally will also give America another chance to honor and thank the men and women in our armed forces for the dangers they face every day in our stead. Unless you have a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s too easy to forget that tens of thousands of Americans are far from the comforts of home, are directly in harm’s way, facing an enemy who hates us precisely because we are free. And coming just days before the ninth anniversary of 9/11, the day that roused us from our complacency, we could use another wakeup call, one of our own devising.
When I join Beck and all gathered at the Lincoln Memorial this weekend, I will talk about my Uncle Martin and the America he envisioned. I will talk about honor and character and sacrifice. I will be joined by those who represent the diversity of the human race.
On Saturday, Uncle Martin’s dream of personhood and human dignity will resound across America. And the Park Police should consider themselves forewarned: As we stand in the symbolic shadow of the great American who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, we just might sing.
Dr. Alveda King is the director of African-American outreach for Priests for Life, and the founder of King for America.