The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on Jan. 15, 1929. His life was unnaturally cut short by an assassin’s bullet when he was only 39 years old. It’s noteworthy that in 1929, a young girl named Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany less than six months after King’s birth. She didn’t live to see adulthood, and she is seldom placed in the same cultural context as King, even though they were, in fact, contemporaries. Certainly both left an indelible impact on a world that proved hostile to them and to the power of their ideas.
When people review King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, they often focus on the environment that produced it. Certainly it has tremendous relevance to the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the importance of judging people by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin has direct application to the injustices suffered by African Americans since before America became a sovereign nation.
But the dream is far more inclusive than that. It encompasses more than just that one moment in history.
Consider Anne Frank, who faced persecution, exile, starvation and death not because of the color of her skin, but because of her faith. Judging others by the content of their character requires us to appreciate a myriad of differences, some of which may not be recognizable to the naked eye.
Racial diversity is now largely appreciated as something to be celebrated rather than feared, which is a welcome step forward from the intolerance present during King’s lifetime. But as a country, we have not made similar progress in respecting diversity of thought or belief. All too often, those with a different point of view are treated with suspicion and mistrust, and critics are all too eager to assign the worst possible motives to those with whom they disagree. That runs counter to both the letter and the spirit of Martin Luther King’s message.
Both King and Anne Frank would be celebrating their eighty-fifth birthdays in 2014 if the world had been more readily accepting of King’s dream during their respective lifetimes. Hopefully, they would applaud the progress the world has made in its fulfillment of the dream that King shared all those years ago. It seems likely that they would also remind us just how far we still have left to go.