He said many profound things that day.
He said America had given African Americans “a bad check.”
He said he had come to remind the nation of “the fierce urgency of now.”
He said we might hew “out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
He said, “I have a dream.”
But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s spiritual heirs prepare to commemorate his great oration and the 1963 March on Washington this Saturday on their 58th anniversary, a case can be made that the words most appropriate to the occasion come not from anything he said that day but rather from a speech three years later. This was in Chicago in the summer of 1966, during a series of protests against housing discrimination.
“I’m tired of marching,” he confessed. “Tired of marching for something that should’ve been mine at birth.”
These were not among the great eloquent words by which King is remembered — one doubts they are carved on any stone monuments — yet they fit this particular moment. And if you wonder what moment that might be, consider that Saturday’s demonstrations aren’t just about commemoration, but also an urgent protest demanding that Congress pass legislation to protect African-American voting rights.
And then consider what a disheartening sentence that is in 2021. You’d think that fight was won long ago. And in a sense, it was. It was won in 1870 with ratification of the 15th Amendment. It was won in 1915 when the Supreme Court struck down the so-called “grandfather clause.” It was won in 1965 with passage of the Voting Rights Act. Now we are required to win it yet again, eight years after the Supreme Court tore the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, with gleeful Republicans passing new laws designed to suppress the Black vote.
Progress shadowed by setback. Dreams deferred. It is the story of our lives.
“I’m tired,” said the great man, in an America so long past that telephones had rotary dials, TV was in black-and-white and Barack Obama was a 5-year-old boy living in Hawaii. And indeed, there was about King a palpable exhaustion as he addressed that America, standing there in shirt sleeves, face puffy, mopping at sweat that trickled down his neck, describing how it felt to live under constant threat of death. “I must confess, I’m tired,” he said yet again.
There’s still a lot of that going around. Not that anyone should be surprised. Consider that, 55 years later, we find ourselves fighting for what we already won, for what we never should have had to fight for in the first place and, yes, for what should have been ours at birth. Worse, we have seen hard-won progress erased by politicians with oily lies and disingenuous grins.
Tired? We have every reason to be.
Yet, when Saturday comes, many of us will nevertheless take to the streets or go on line to join Dr. King’s family, the Rev. Al Sharpton and many other luminaries in dozens of protests, rallies and town halls from South Florida to North Washington state (for the one nearest you, go to marchonforvotingrights.org). In the process, they will follow after King who, for all the exhaustion he expressed that day in ‘66, never stopped demanding that America be what America said it was.
It is patriotism with clear eyes, patriotism with its work clothes on and sleeves rolled up. It is a patriotism — some might call it stubbornness — that has empowered our generations. Yes, we are tired of marching for our civil and human rights.
Too tired to stop.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via email at email@example.com.