It is sometimes said that old people have better memories for events that happened decades ago than for what they had for breakfast this morning.
As we have discussed here many times, old-age short-term memory difficulties certainly are annoying (the universal “why am I in this room” question). But at age 74, I have not yet noticed that old memories are stronger than recent ones.
However, today's holiday celebrating the life of the great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds me how much history we elders have lived through and that those memories make real many of the events that for young students are often just dry facts on a page they must memorize for a test.
Today, we are almost 53 years removed from Dr. King's astonishing “I Have a Dream” speech which he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on 28 August 1963.
To repeat: 53 years ago. To a 10- or 12-year-old it might as well have happened in the year 1000. I know that when I was 12, in 1953, even World War II felt like ancient history, even though my father was a veteran. That's how it is when we are young.
But while we – you and I and the rest of our generation – are still here, we are living links to the history of our lifetimes and, today, to that historic moment in 1968.
I don't recall now if I listened to Dr. King's speech live on radio or television but I certainly saw it on the news that day, or more likely, the next. It was an immediate phenomenon.
Maybe someone reading this blog post today saw the speech in person. That's not as entirely unlikely as you might think; I know someone who was there. But even if you heard or saw it a day or week later, you were a contemporary witness to what still is the defining moment of the civil rights movement.
That makes you part of history and if you have grandchildren who are studying Dr. King at this time of year, or any other time, you can tell them what it was like in the United States back then when that speech raised the consciousness (or ire in some cases) of the entire nation.
That living connection matters. When I was a very young student – first or second or third grade, late 1940s – an old, old, old man came to our class on a day the teacher was telling us about President Abraham Lincoln.
I don't remember his name but I recall that he couldn't stand entirely straight, that he shuffled along slowly when he walked and was amazingly wrinkled.
He was there that day to tell us how, when he was a little boy, he had shaken the hand of President Lincoln. And when he was done telling us his story, he shook the hand of each student in the class.
I was thrilled to touch a person who had touched that famous president from a time so long ago I hardly understood it was real. History changed for me that day when I learned for the first time that those people really walked the earth once, just like me.
We, you and I, are old enough now that we, too, can pass on the reality of our historical moments to the next generations.
Just because it came to mind while I was writing this, here's another personal memory I have that is associated with Dr. King and what he stood for.
In 1968, I was married, living in Minneapolis and working at a small, industrial film production company.
First thing on the morning of 5 April, I heard on the radio that Dr. King had been assassinated the previous evening in Memphis.
At the office a short time later, I sat reading through newspaper reports of the tragedy as my co-workers arrived. The first one peered over my shoulder at the article and said, “I see they got another nigger.”
Each of my other colleagues, as they arrived, said something similar, using the same shocking word. To me, it was chilling that people, whatever their private attitudes, felt free to speak that way assuming, apparently, that I shared their feelings.
Unfortunately, all these years later, such beliefs hang on in some circles. We should remind ourselves and the young people we know how hard it is to fulfill a dream.
Here are the stirring final minutes of Dr. King's speech that day in 1963. The full speech is here.