Consensus, the goal of much public discussion, has become more elusive than at any time in memory. Public debates quickly degenerate into attacks, blaming and name calling generating conflict, but no solutions. Sadly, we have become unable and unwilling to listen to each other and seek common ground. We cannot even agree on any facts. The cost is staggering. Energies that should be directed towards solving our problems are used to attack our fellow citizens. Resources and energies are wasted. People become disgusted with the process and participation declines. Problems fester.
What are the lessons of history? Are there examples of our having overcome sharp political divisions? How was this accomplished? Can we learn?
While significant racial division remains, our country has made remarkable progress on civil rights since the 1950’s. Consensus was achieved to eliminate segregation and discrimination in many important areas of public life. Among many factors that can be cited for that progress is the famous speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the August 1963 March on Washington.
Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech remains the most celebrated speech of modern times. For instance, in 1999, researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Texas A&M University ranked American speeches based on the opinions of 137 scholars of American public address. (1.) What can we learn from that speech? How can we apply it to our conflicts today? To what kinds of conflict can the lessons be applied? How can we use those lessons in everyday life?
For instance, could those lessons be used to address some of the problems discussed here in recent weeks? Can those lessons be used to persuade the New Caney school administrators to use her walker? Can we use the lessons to persuade churches to stop allowing their pulpits to be used for hate speech urging violence be directed towards children? Can we stop the electrochock torture of children with disabilities in Massachusetts? What are the lessons?
I believe King’s speech, and its having been replayed countless times, have been central in forging a national consensus on civil rights. Over time, it enabled many to do one of the most difficult of human tasks: to rethink and change our positions on a subject to which we had already given great thought.
Real progress in civil rights would require a national consensus. Racism, segregation in many areas, and unequal education were but a few of the obstacles. How did this speech help make progress towards a national consensus on the sensitive and personal issue of race?
Blog in Progress. Stay Tuned. More coming.
Note: This is being posted, initially, on the birthday of my best friend forever, Rick Wetmore. What makes it especially appropriate to devote this essay to Rick is that we have disagreed about so many things in our lives, but never let that disagrement interfere with our friendship. I like to think that the hallmark of our friendship has been the willingness to openly discuss our disagreements. I have learned much from our conversations.