It was August of 1970 when I first heard it. I was eight years old and attending Vacation Bible School for the first time. Mrs. Musgrave was our teacher. She was what we’d call today an outlier, a bit of a character, and the salt of the earth. The book we were using for our studies was an odd-shaped paperback. On the front was a boy. The boy’s skin was black. I mention that because it was about to become an important point for me. He was playing a drum, and that too, became an important point for me.
As we talked about the book, Mrs. Musgrave delivered what was to me a rather startling revelation. In our great country, the country we were taught in school to revere, something called “racism” existed. Something called “prejudice” existed where people were discriminated against because their skin color was darker than mine. To me, that eight year old patriotic American girl, this was, at that point in my life, the dumbest thing I had ever heard. I remember very clearly my reaction. This was just plain stupid. What difference did it make what color skin a person had? Why would someone be treated differently because of such an inconsequential thing? Kittens came in all different colors, dogs, too. Were they no more or less kittens or dogs because their colors were different? Why were humans any different? It seemed completely illogical to the eight year old me.
This book quoted a man named Henry David Thoreau, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” Who was this man? I wondered. Surely, he must be a wise man. His words resonated with me, because even then, I knew that I, myself, heard a different drummer. We learned of Thoreau’s own “different drummer” status. I did not know until many years later, his own contribution to the abolition movement. But, I learned at the age of eight that sometimes a person must take a stand against unjust laws, like the laws that kept people whose skin was a different color than mine from fully living their own lives. I got it. I drank that lesson down deep into my soul. And that lesson has never left me.
But there was more. The most important part of that square book with the black and white cover and the dark-skinned boy playing his drum was the interesting object in the back. Attached to the book inside the back cover was a small record. (Those were the ancient days of record players.) The record was plastic, but it was a real record that could be played. Mrs. Musgrave placed it on the turn table, putting the record player needle into the groove. These are the impassioned words I heard then for the first time in my life:
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
How those words touched me. I joined with this man, this Martin Luther King Jr., in his dream. I wanted that little black boy with his drum to be judged by the content of his character not the color of his skin. I wanted that for all children. I wanted grownups to hear those words and to understand that people are people no matter what color their skin is, and no matter if they were poor like me or rich, and no matter if they lived in a little town or a big city, and no matter what country they might live in. I wanted the world that Dr. King had shown me. That world where what mattered was if you were a good person, if you were kind to others, if you did good to each other every day.
In a small church in a small town, hundreds of miles away from the racial strife that was raging in my country, Mrs. Musgrave and Dr. King opened my eyes and my heart. For that, I am forever grateful. And so with me, the lessons of my childhood will always be at the heart of how I see the world. We all march to the beat of our own drum, and the content of your character will always matter to me. Unjust laws and wrong actions must always be confronted. Where there is wrong, we have the responsibility, and we must have the moral convictions to right those wrongs.
I have a dream today. And it is the same dream I have dreamed for nearly fifty years. It is a dream that is the echo of generations of humans who long for a world where all are judged by the content of their characters and not by the inconsequential details of their race, religion, sex, orientation, or country of birth.
I have a dream today.