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40 years later, King's speech still moving

Sept. 2, 2003

By Jessica Runnels, columnist

On Thursday morning Good Morning America marked the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech by showing a diverse cast of Americans - black and white, young and old, from New York to California and points in between - reciting the powerful words that fueled the civil rights movement.

I sat motionless on the edge of my bed, staring at the people on the screen and contemplating the meaning of words that I never had heard. We learned about the famous speech in our history classes, and each of us knows at least one line - most likely from the audio clips that have been played continuously over the past four decades. But few of us actually have read King's words or heard the speech in its entirety.

I was going to be late for class, but I suddenly didn't care. Something was forcing me to sit, to listen.

As actor Samuel L. Jackson said the closing lines, I was moved to tears. Not tears of joy for being blessed enough to live in a time when I, as a young black woman, can attend a private four-year university with a reputation for excellence. And not even tears of grief over the thought of what King might have done had he not been so mercilessly murdered in 1968.

No, the tears that I cried were tears of shame. Shame for being so self-centered that I had never bothered to listen to the words that undoubtedly influenced where I am in America today. Shame that I rarely acknowledge or even think about the fact that I have so many more opportunities than my parents had. And shame that somewhere along the way - in the process of growing up and trying to find my place in this world - the fire that burned within the 6-year-old, who forced her parents to go to church because she wanted to know God so badly, is now barely a flicker.

We get so caught up in the hustle of everyday life that we forget to look at the big picture. We take life for granted. We worry about cars, our hair, our dates, our jobs, our grades, things that in the long run mean very little. We rarely take time to thank the people who help us on a daily basis, and we never think about the people whose blood, sweat and tears forged paths so that we will not have to struggle today.

If King's message could be summed up in one word, it would be unity. America is a better place today than it was 40 years ago. Just look around as you pass through the campus today, and you'll see proof.

But you'll also see a generation of people who never will have to battle so many of the demons that we as a nation would rather forget. We are a generation that doesn't think twice about sitting next to someone of a different race in class - a generation that never stops to think that only a few decades ago, such classes didn't exist.

I grew a little as a person Thursday morning and became more reflective in the process. Perhaps one day we as a generation will be able to look at where our country's been, examine where we are and work together to get to where we want to be, a more perfect union.