It’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Day today here in the US; a day when we reflect on his legacy of civil rights, of non-violent protest, of the vision articulated in his beautiful ‘I have a dream’ speech in which he spoke of brotherhood, of freedom, of equality for all. I quote:
I say to you today, my friends, so 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 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 a dream today.
If you haven’t read the full text of King’s speech recently, I hope that you might do so, and listen to him giving the speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I get shivers down my spine when I read it, not only for his words, but because of the significance therein: Yes, we are all ‘created equal’ and we all ought to be judged by the ‘content of [our] character,’ not by the color of our skin or the scarves we wear on our heads. Or, because some of us might not be able to read King’s speech and absorb his message.
My son Charlie is one such individual. He is a teenager, on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, and only able to read a few words. I’ve shown him the video of King delivering his speech: Charlie watches for a bit (the black and white images are probably a blur to him) and then tells me ‘all done’ and walks away. He is not inclined to listen to his mother get all didactic about how King’s words and King’s actions, his insistence that we all have the right to any seat on a bus or to be served at any restaurant counter.
Like many, but not all, school children in the US, Charlie is home from school. Charlie prefers to stick to a routine, so having a Monday off is not to his liking. But I’m glad he has it off: It’s not too long ago that Charlie would not have been able to go to school at all. It was only after the passing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975 that public schools in the US were required to provide an education for students with disabilities.
I’d love for Charlie to read a sentence. I do have a dream that one day he will be able to string a line of words together and read them back to us. And the reason I can keep this dream alive is ultimately because of King.
You might wonder what special education has to do with the civil rights movement: Well, King’s push for civil rights for all, for no discrimination on the basis of ‘what’ a person is because we are all equal, helped foster individuals with disabilities to stand up for their rights. To not be shut in and shut away anymore behind the doors of their houses, but to speak up and demand their right to employment; to public transportation; to accommodations like ramps in front of buildings (so they could go inside them to work), lifts on buses (so they could get to work or just go grocery shopping on their own), to so much more. To be able to go to school in their communities side by side with other children, of whatever race and ethnicity and religion, and learn, rather than being packed off to separate, ‘special’ schools.
Without the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Charlie would most likely be living in an institution. He would never have attended school with the kids in the neighborhood, never have played on the same playground, never have learned to ride his bike on the streets of our town. He’s be shut away, probably heavily medicated and in restraints to control aggressive behaviors instead of being taught ways to self-calm and manage himself. He might as well be living in a prison. He, and how many individuals with disabilities like him, would not be free at all.
I’ll end by quoting the end of King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech:
…….when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Photo from Paul Schutzer/Courtesy of LIFE.com; this photo has never been seen before.
“In May 1961, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King speaks to a volunteer inside a safe house in Montgomery, Alabama, that is providing temporary shelter for the Freedom Riders during the arduous trip through the Deep South. By this point in the Rides, the volunteers — young men and women, black and white — had faced brutal beatings, a fire bombing, and hospitals turning them away for medical treatment. Still, they remained determined to push into Jackson, Mississippi, with the mentoring of King and other leaders of the movement.”