Brendan Smialowski, AP
President Barack Obama is officially sworn-in by Chief Justice John Roberts in the Blue Room of the White House during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
This is a very different country than it was on Aug. 28, 1963, when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his transformational "I Have a Dream" speech.
On that occasion, King envisioned a future where people "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Since then, generations of Americans have been born and raised with no firsthand experience of segregated schools, "whites only" drinking fountains, or anyone being forced to the back of the bus. Jim Crow and "Separate but Equal" no longer carry the day. The nation that once enslaved an entire race of people has twice elected an African-American to the highest office in the land. Hundreds of years of slavery and discrimination constitute perhaps the most shameful legacy of our history, which makes it remarkable that we've come so far in such a relatively short period of time.
It's good to know that, in many ways, much of the dream is now reality. But at home and abroad, there's still quite a lot of work to be done to bring the full measure of King's vision to fruition.
The United States is unique among the nations of the world in that it was founded not on the basis of geography or ethnicity, but on the power of an idea – that all men are created equal. In his speech, King included the same reference to the Declaration of Independence and rightly noted that this ideal had not been fully implemented. Even in America, where our founding documents advocate the very virtues King championed nearly two centuries later, it has proven difficult to align lofty principles with noble practices.
Across the globe, too many people have ignored King's counsel. Ethnic hatreds continue to divide nations, tribes, and even families. Some speak of grudges that are centuries old as if they happened last week. When the color of another's skin is the only thing you see, it's impossible to see the content of the character underneath it.
That needs to stop.
Thanks in no small part to King's valiant efforts, the blatant racial hatred that produces oppression and violence is no longer tolerated in the United States. The nation needs to continue to build on that. It must expand the reach and the impact of King's words.
The content of our collective character requires us to do so.