Jan. 15, we celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a moment when our country feels hopelessly divided.
But I still have hope. And I’ll tell you why.
Three months before I graduated from law school, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. Riots broke out in cities across America, including my own. Wilmington, Del., was burning.
The governor, Charles Terry, had called in the National Guard when rock and bottle throwing escalated to sniping, looting and arson. As a young trial attorney heading in to work each day, I walked by 6-foot-tall uniformed soldiers carrying rifles. Apparently, they were there to protect me.
Over in East Wilmington, mothers were terrified their children would make one bad mistake and end up dead. National Guardsmen patrolled their streets with loaded weapons. Curfews were in effect.
Dr. King told us that “true peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” And as a young public defender, I remember imagining how we might heal this God-awful situation. How justice might be done. How we could rise out of the ashes—and find a way out together.
Because back then, we were made to believe that we couldn’t.
Forty years later, I found myself standing on a railroad platform in Wilmington, Del., once again.
It was Jan. 17, 2009—a bitter, cold, but glorious day. Thousands of people were in the streets of Wilmington and the parking lots, waiting for the same thing I was.
I was being picked up by a friend, President-Elect Barack Obama, who was about to be sworn in as this nation’s first African-American president.
As I stood on that platform and waited, I looked out over my city—the very same part of the city that was in chaos 40 years earlier, when I had imagined and prayed that we might all live together.
That’s what can change in 40 years in this country.
Last year, this country elected a president who plays off our differences for political gain. It often feels as if we retreat behind those differences. But we simply cannot allow them to prevail once again.
Here’s what I believe, folks—and I’ll believe it until the day I die: All those differences hardly measure up to the values we hold in common.
I believe we will once again move forward together. But to do that, we must realize what Dr. King realized—that opportunity is the only road to true equality.
This nation cannot be what it’s capable of being until it has offered that opportunity, equally, to all Americans.
May he continue to rest in peace, and inspire us for generations to come.