On Nov. 13, a historic event took place on a plot of land near the national memorials to presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt: the groundbreaking ceremony for the memorial honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Like many other Americans, I am overjoyed that our nation is honoring King this way. On the hallowed ground surrounded by memorials to soldiers and leaders of wars, it is especially moving to see the first memorial to a leader who preached and practiced nonviolence and peace.
But even as we celebrate the enormously important symbolism of building a memorial to King on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., this monument should also serve as a powerful reminder. There is still much more for our nation to do to honor him and his teachings that can't be accomplished with a statue or words carved in stone. King may have redeemed the promise of America, but has America redeemed the promise of King?
When most Americans think of King's speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the historic 1963 march on Washington for jobs and freedom, they only know the famous "I Have a Dream" section. But too few people remember or even know about the central theme that begins the speech: the bounced check America had written to its Black citizens.
King said we had come to the nation's capital that day to cash a check America had written nearly 200 years earlier. He said that when our nation's founders wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they had created a promissory note that guaranteed all Americans the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But instead of honoring that promise for Black Americans, America had defaulted on it.
King said those of us who had come to the march were there to cash our checks because we refused to believe "the bank of justice is bankrupt" or that "there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation."
Right now too many American children and families are still getting bounced checks from our economic, health, education and housing banks. It is intolerable that more than 40 years after King dreamed of a day when his own children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, the gap between rich and poor is widening, and huge disparities of opportunity persist for Black children.
King's warnings that "returning violence for violence multiplies violence" and "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death" speak to us more loudly today than ever.
Those who helped lay the groundwork for this memorial know that the planning hasn't been easy; it's been a long and hard-fought struggle. But building the monument has been far, far easier than building the beloved community and just nation and world King envisioned.
Will the new memorial inspire us to recommit to making sure his dream doesn't stay just a dream?
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council.