A little more than two years before I was born, more than 200,000 people traveled to Washington to make their voices heard. An appeal for a better future was made, culminating in Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The lasting legacy of the march, and of Dr. King in particular, is impossible to summarize in a newspaper column. But perhaps we can look at it through a quotation from Genesis, which, not-coincidentally, serves as the text for a memorial marker at the old Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.:
“They said one to another, behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Now, 50 years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the determination and courage shown by a generation of black leaders have provided me and countless others with one incredibly important thing: opportunity.
When people ask what motivates me or drives me to serve the public good, I have a simple yet complex answer: I am living my mother’s American Dream. That dream was strengthened by the efforts of Dr. King, Congressman John Lewis and the countless other civil rights leaders who gave so much to build a better future. And nowhere were those efforts more clear than in the messages that came out of the March on Washington.
The leaders of the civil rights movement taught us the value of belief, discipline and hard work and that, when put together, those traits can change the world. The persistence and strength embodied in those coming of age in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s defined a generation of black leaders, and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In 1967, it gave us a Republican from Massachusetts, Edward Brooke, as the first black U.S. senator since reconstruction. And it gave my mom, working 16-hour days to keep food on our table in North Charleston, that extra push to keep moving forward.
To be certain, half a century after the march, our nation still faces many challenges. But without those days and the efforts of those involved, the platform to address many of those issues would not exist. There would be no light at the end of the tunnel, because there would be no tunnel.
An immediate example of a critical challenge we face is reforming our educational systems. As Congress moves to reauthorize primary and secondary education programs this year, we need to ask ourselves the seemingly obvious question: What is best for our children, for their future? I like to imagine it is the same line of thinking those who marched on Washington had in mind.
What we must do is have tough, sometimes uncomfortable conversations that will move us forward. We don’t need Republican or Democratic solutions. We need American solutions. Using education as an example, whether your answer is school choice or allowing funds to follow individual students or any other number of ideas, let us demand the best from our nation.
Everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed. Every parent deserves the chance to see his or her children grow up in a brighter world. And all men are created equal.
As Dr. King wrote in April 1963: “We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.” That goal remains, and in my role representing the people of the great state of South Carolina in the U.S. Senate, I work to move that needle forward everyday.
Mr. Scott, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate in December to fill an unexpired term, is the nation’s only African-American senator; contact him at SenatorTimScott@scott.senate.gov.