by Marcus Roberts
From the beginning, jazz music has been a force for good in America. It arose from a people just one generation out of slavery and quickly became a music for all Americans – regardless of the color of their skin. Jazz music was a driving force for desegregation as men and women of all races, religions, and cultural backgrounds took the stage together. It is still my goal today as a jazz musician in America to serve as a force for good–to bring people together on and off the stage.
February is Black History Month and while I hope for the day when we won’t need a separate month to celebrate our history, I guess it may still be needed at this time. It has been more than 50 years since the historic 1963 march on Washington when some 250,000 blacks and whites, rich and poor, Christians and Jews and those of all religious faiths came peacefully to our capital city to stand together for freedom and jobs for all. 1963 was a year of much unrest and protest but it was also a year of unparalleled civic engagement. And that’s a good thing.
I believe that we should not fear the current unrest in the streets of America, because unrest signals the deep commitment of our people to solving the problems of our society. We should, however, fear intolerance and disrespect and it’s this that keeps me up at night. As a black man and a disabled individual, I am well-acquainted with intolerance. But it is my dream that some day in my lifetime I will live in a United States of America that looks upon every person with respect – and that all people will choose to live their own lives with the dignity and grace that Martin Luther King Jr spoke about in 1963.
When King finally took the stage at the end of that very long day in 1963, he spoke eloquently from the text that he had prepared. When I read that text over now, in 2017, I am struck by the many profound statements in that speech. King told the audience, for example, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
As King neared the end of his prepared text on that day in 1963, he started improvising and extorted the crowds to “Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.” The great Mahalia Jackson who was not far away in the crowd called out to King “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” And so I think that to some degree, Mahalia Jackson is responsible for one of the most famous speeches in American history.
As King looked out over the crowd, he said, “I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood……..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.”
I have not included the full text of King’s speech that day but it’s definitely worth taking the time to look it up. I think that one of the most poignant passages in the speech is this: “This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, ‘My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where our fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’”
It is 50 years later. We have come far but we still have much work to do.